Scripture scholars often discern seven signs in the first half of the Gospel according to St. John. Chapters 2 through 11 feature seven misfortunes — some just a matter of inconvenience, others actually calamitous events — to which Jesus responds with truly life-giving generosity. The couple whose wedding is marred by the scarcity of wine (1), and the crowd that faces a long hike home without partaking of a loaf or a fish (2), deserve sympathy certainly. Jesus walking on the water in the midst of hollowing winds (3), might indeed give cause for alarm, but his presence quickly calms the winds as well as the disciples’ nerves. The royal official’s son at the point of death (4), the paralytic sitting at Bethesda’s pool for 38 years (5), and the young man blind from birth (6), are indeed opportunities for great consideration and compassion of the part of Jesus. And finally, the raising of Lazarus (7), concludes the list of seven signs which vividly indicates that no misfortune, no adversity, is beyond the reach of Jesus’ saving touch. Every crisis, from empty wine glasses to death itself, grows faint before the rescuing hand of God in Christ.
Jesus puts his finger on the purpose of these various misfortunes when he speaks to his disciples on the significance of the young man born blind. St. John writes: “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” The couple without wine, the crowds without bread, the astonished disciples in their boat, the ailing son, the crippled beggar, the blind youth and even the moribund Lazarus were not in their sorry states as a punishment for sin but rather that the power of God might be displayed through the relief of their trials. When the water is changed into wine at Cana, St. John notes “…and his disciples began to believe in him.” After the royal official’s son is healed, the evangelist records, “…so he and his whole household believed.” The 38-year invalid also acknowledged Jesus: “The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him whole.” After the feeding of the 5,000, the joyous crowds exult: “When therefore the people saw the sign which he did, they said, ‘This is truly the prophet that has come into the world.’” The still immature faith of the disciples is given a boost when they recognize Jesus walking on the water: “But he said to them, ‘It is I; be not afraid.’ They were willing therefore to receive him into the boat.” The man born blind was likewise led to an act of faith in Christ through his healing event. Jesus said “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The sighted man replied, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.” And of course the prospect of having her brother raised from the dead evoked Martha’s profound and tender act of faith: “She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
Each of these trials, each of these challenges, could have evolved into paralyzing fear, into hostile contempt, or into bitter despair. Instead, through Christ and through his ministry, misfortune becomes opportunity. The problem, paradoxically, becomes the solution, as one author observed. In all seven of St. John’s signs, the persons involved faced their hardship squarely and invited Jesus to share their crisis. Mary turning to Christ at Cana, the royal official encountering Jesus on the street, the paralytic and the blind youth embracing Jesus in spite of public harassment, the crowds so grateful for their loaves that they wanted to make Jesus king, the disciples relaxing with Jesus in the boat, Marth and Mary announcing to Jesus about their dead brother: all these were united in understanding that Jesus and the embrace of Jesus and the heeding of Jesus is the only true resolution to life’s challenges. Were it not for their problems, these several Biblical figures would never have arrived at the happy resolution that Jesus is their Lord, Messiah, Savior, and Son of God. Undoubtedly God brings good out of evil, and faith out of misfortune.
As Holy Week arrives, the believer is wisely reminded of the greatest sign in any Gospel account: the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. Indeed, the problem became the solution. Death led to life, as Holy Week will illustrate in Scripture, in liturgy and in personal devotions. Jesus Christ faced his fearsome passion and death filled with confidence that God’s mercy would triumph over such adversity. And Jesus’ trust was proven justified! At Easter, he rose triumphant over death, rewarded for his unwavering confidence in the Fatherhood of God. The Paschal Mystery — Good Friday vanquished by Easter Sunday, death conquered by life, adversity overcome by courage, the problem transformed into the solution — such is at the heart of Christianity and the enduring sign of God’s presence in the world.