John the Baptist, in prison because of his confrontation with Herod over the king's unlawful marriage, sends disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they have been expecting. That action triggers one of the most fascinating exchanges in the Gospels.
Matthew makes it clear that there is no question in his own mind as to the identity of Jesus. He writes: “When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him” (New American Bible, 1986). In other words, from his post-Easter perspective, Matthew has no trouble referring to Jesus as “the Christ.” But the Baptist apparently had his doubts. Why? Among the varieties of Judaisms of the first century—among, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes—there was a corresponding variety of images of the Messiah. Some expected the Anointed One to emerge from the priestly caste. Others looked for a prophet like Moses. Many expected a son of David cut from the same combative cloth, i.e., a warrior king who would defeat their enemies and establish political autonomy for the people of Judea. John had preached a coming Judgment Day, when the ax would be laid to the root.
As is typical of Jesus when confronted with a question, he prompts the questioners to discover the answer for themselves. Rather than giving a simple yes or no, Jesus instructs them to tell John what they see and hear. He proceeds to describe what they are seeing and hearing in words that echo Isaiah. The mention of blind people seeing, lame persons walking and deaf people hearing evokes the very passage used as our First Reading this Sunday. And the reference to preaching Good News to the poor recalls Isaiah 61. As far as we know, no one in Judea at this time expected that the coming Anointed One would be a healer.
In effect, then, Jesus was telling John's disciples: “Look around and see what is happening. The healings that Isaiah links with the end-time restoration of Israel are happening. Just maybe, the ‘One who is to come’ at the end-time is here as well.” In the next chapter Jesus makes it clear that his healings and his messianic mission are connected: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt 12:28).
These healings of the blind, deaf, and lame that made up so much of the ministries of Jesus and the early Church—were they simply signs to prove the divinity of Jesus and special helps for the infant Christian communities? Some authors have thought so. But there is also a long tradition of interpretation, including many patristic writers, who understand the healing portrayed in the New Testament as a normal component of Church life. The Church's requirement of documented healing miracles in the canonization process is an indication that healing beyond medical explanation is a continued expectation in the Church. The ongoing documentation of extraordinary physical healings at Lourdes is another reminder.
Yet these extraordinary experiences can distract us from the reality that healing, mental and physical, has always been a side effect of the life of faith lived fully. The patristic writings refer to healing in response to prayer as a fact of Church life. Testimonies regarding physical and mental healings in the context of contemporary prayer groups abound.
My own suspicion is that most common (undocumented) healing occurs when a mother prays for an ailing child. And isn't it true that all of our daily personal encounters are either a little bit of a healing or a little bit toxic? It is good to remember that the risen Lord we approach and mediate in the sacraments is a healing Messiah. Openness to that reality can be a source of wholeness in our personal and collective lives.