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One of the best-known stories in the New Testament tells of Jesus feeding 5,000 people who had gathered beside the lake at Galilee to hear him speak. With just five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus provided food for everyone there. Soon after this event Jesus fed another crowd, this time of 4,000, with only seven loaves and a few small fish. Are these stories mere parables, or was Jesus truly the master of the elements?
Dramatic examples of Christ’s power over nature are found throughout the gospels. All four books tell of a miracle occurring on the same day as the feeding of the 5,000. That evening Jesus sent his disciples away to row home across the lake to the town of Bethsaida, while he himself withdrew from the others for a moment of solitary prayer. Suddenly a sharp storm blew up, as often happens on lakes surrounded by mountains – signs at Galilee today still warn of such squalls. Caught mid-journey, the disciples were straining at their oars when Jesus appeared, walking towards them on the water. The Gospel of Matthew ways that they cried out in terror, “It is a ghost!” but Jesus reassured them. The moment he entered the boat there was calm, so the group could continue to shore. On another occasion the boat carrying Jesus and the disciples was almost overwhelmed by a tempest. According to the Gospel of Mark, when they woke Jesus from untroubled sleep he calmed the storm with the words, “Peace! Be still!”
Was Jesus’ walking on water an act of levitation? The phenomenon is well documented in other times and places. Saint Francis of Assisi, for instance, is said to have frequently risen to the height of a tree in his states of ecstasy. Eyewitnesses also saw Saint Teresa of Avila rise in the air many times.
The Gospel of John records another miracle, this time when Jesus was a guest at a wedding in Cana. When the wine ran out at the reception, he instructed the servants to fill six large stone jars with water – some 450 liters in all. The water changed into wine of such quality that the steward of the feast congratulated the bridegroom.
There may be simple explanations for a number of the miracles of nature attributed to Jesus. Some writers suggest that he was joking when he commanded Peter to catch a fish in whose mouth he would find a shekel to pay a tax to the Temple. Perhaps the shekel was to be gained by selling the fish. And there might be nothing extraordinary about Peter catching a tremendous haul of fish at Christ’s command after having caught nothing all night, since an observer on land can see a shoal of fish that may be hidden to a boatman. Yet the professional fisherman was sufficiently impressed by this to leave everything behind and become a follower of Jesus.
The modern reader may see these elemental miracles as contrary to science and logic, but the people of Jesus’ time were more accepting of such possibilities. For them the whole world was under God’s control, and the Son of God was demonstrating that truth.
13:1-2 Jesus gives an apocalyptic edge to his followers’ admiration of the temple area, which had been greatly enlarged and adorned by Herod the Great. Many of his subjects resented paying the heavy taxes that Herod exacted for this and other large-scale building projects.
13:3-37 I another private scene, this time set on a ridge facing the temple mount across the Kidron valley, Jesus’ inner circle asks him to explain his outburst about the temple’s impending destruction. In response, Jesus delivers his second long speech in Mark’s story, this time addressing the turbulent experiences to come. In good apocalyptic style, Jesus’ predictions are in effect a resume of the group’s recent history. Picking their way through confusion and disorder to come will be a dangerous task.
13:14 Here is the most obvious instance of Mark breaking through his narrative conversations to speak directly to the reader – even though in the story Jesus is apparently still speaking to his inner group. (see also 7:3-4.)
The devastating desecration alludes to the apocalyptic Book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11), where attempts by Hellenistic rulers to convert the Jerusalem temple into a shrine of Zeus in the early second century BCE were interpreted as a sign of the near approach of the end (1 Maccabbee 1:54). Mark’s readers are meant to connect this “prophecy” with a desecration or the threat of one sometime closer to their own day, perhaps the emperor Caligula’s attempt to place his own statue in the temple (in 40/41 CE), or perhaps the disturbances surrounding the great revolt against the Romans in 66-70.
13:24-32 The heavenly disturbances that usher in the arrival of the son of Adam on the clouds resonate with the imagery of cosmic catastrophe found in biblical prophecy and apocalyptic (compare, e.g. Isaiah 13:10; 43:4; Daniel 7:13-14; also 2 Esdras 13:1-3).
13:33-37 Jesus ends his apocalyptic speech with a brief similitude about the return of one’s landlord or master at an unexpected time. At the end Jesus turns once again from his inner group to address Mark’s readers directly: What I’m telling you, I say to everyone: Stay alert!
It was winter 1531, just 10 years after the conquistador Hernan Cortez razed the great city of Tenochtitlan. In its place, the Spanish built Mexico City. To secure their power and spread their faith, the conquerors destroyed the temples and shrines of the old religion.
Fifty-year-old Juan Diego was one of thousands of Aztec commoners who had converted to Christianity. One day, while at the top of Tepeyac Hill north of Mexico City – once the site of a temple to Tonantzin, Aztec goddess of the earth and corn – he had a vision of a beautiful young woman surrounded by golden mist. The woman told him to go and tell the bishop that she was the Virgin Mary, and that she wanted a church built at that very spot. Fearfully, Juan walked to Mexico City, where Bishop Juan de Zumarraga listened sympathetically, but remained unconvinced.
On his way home Juan climbed Tepeyac Hill again. The young woman was waiting, and she asked him to go back to the bishop. When he did so Bishop Zumarraga insisted that the apparition had to provide a sign. Perplexed, the Indian relayed the message to the mysterious woman.
The next day, as Juan approached the hill, the woman appeared again. “Go to the top,” she said, “and take the roses growing there to the bishop.” The Indian was certain he would find no roses. It was neither the right place nor the right season for such flowers. But he did find some, and the woman arranged them in his tilma, the loose cape he wore.
When Juan unfolded his tilma before the bishop, the roses cascaded to the floor. On the tilma itself was an image of the beautiful woman. Finally convinced, Bishop Zumarraga immediately ordered that a church be built on Tepeyac Hill, and the apparition became known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, in honor of an earlier shrine in Spain.
The Virgin who produced roses in winter became the patron saint of Mexico. By 1538 her miraculous picture had helped convert eight million Indians to Christianity. Today Juan Diego’s tilma hangs framed in gold in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a new church on Tepeyac Hill, completed in 1976. While some historians believe that the Virgin’s image was faked to help promote Christianity, the unfaded picture is still an object of veneration, particularly on 12 December, the anniversary of the miracle.