Some of our Advent hymns address Jesus as “Messiah.” For instance, “Come Divine Messiah.” What do we expect a Messiah to do if He comes?
“Messiah” is the Hebrew word, for the “anointed one.” Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries expected that God would send them a Messiah to liberate them from foreign occupation. There was a strong hope that a powerful military leader would restore the liberty and prestige of their country they had once known under King David. In fact, given God’s promise to David that one of his descendants would always rule (2 Samuel 7:16), many people expected this Messiah would be from the family of David.
Those who took their religion seriously expected that a strong religious leader would restore the right relationship with God, in adherence to the Covenant God had made with Israel.
Many of those who went to hear John the Baptist expected his predictions of a Messiah would bring religious and moral reform, demolishing resistance with “the wrath that is to come” (Mt 3:7) and cutting through corruption like “an ax at the root of the tree,” taking down “every tree that didn’t bear fruit” (Mt 3:12).
At the time of Jesus’ Baptism, John may have been convinced that Jesus was the One whom he expected. Nevertheless, after John had been imprisoned by Herod, John may have begun to wonder when Jesus was going to begin the reform that John anticipated.
John sent disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are You the One who is to come or shall we look for another?” (Mt 11:3). Possibly, John realized that he was not going to leave his prison cell and was moving his disciples towards Jesus.
John may also have begun to wonder when Jesus was going to wield the ax to the root of the rotten trees. When would he throw the barren branches into the fire along with chaff he would winnow? These predictions may have come directly from John’s lips because, in fact, they don’t really describe Jesus.
Jesus responds to John’s disciples with the words of Isaiah that we hear in today’s first reading: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Mt 11:4-5, cf. Is 35:5-6; 61:1).
Did John realize that Jesus was explaining Himself in the words of the older prophetic tradition? Did John ever suspect that his idea of a Messiah might not be accurate?
During His ministry, Jesus never declared, “I am the Messiah.” Jesus even silenced devils who called him “Messiah” (Lk 4:41). In 1901, a German scholar, William Wrede, in his book the Messianic Secret, claimed that, because Jesus always avoided the title, “Messiah,” He did not think He was the Messiah. Half way through the Gospel of Mark, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus forbids him from telling anyone.
Only at the time of His Passion and death does Jesus’ own His identity as Messiah become evident. During Jesus’ trial, the high priest asks Him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answers “I am” (Mk 14:61-62). As He hangs on the Cross, people mock Jesus, as “the Messiah,” never suspecting that it was on the Cross that He was accomplishing His messianic mission (Mk 15:32; Lk 23:35).
After the Resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, Jesus’ disciples began to announce openly that Jesus was the Messiah, as Peter declared “God has made Him Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).
Why did Jesus resist the title during His ministry? It seems evident that Jesus did not want to let His Messianic vocation be boxed in by other people’s expectations, whether those expectations be the hope of a military Messiah or a religious reformer. He was to be a suffering Messiah.
In His death and Resurrection, Jesus showed Himself to be the Messiah. He did not defeat armies or force a religious reform but through the graces of His death and Resurrection Jesus brought a powerful healing force into the world.
Most Christians are not aware that they constantly call Jesus, “Messiah.” Messiah is the Hebrew word for the “anointed One.” Our English word, “Christ,” is derived from the Greek of the New Testament, Christus.
Jesus’ identity as the Messiah was so important to His early followers that they frequently attached the title to His name, Jesus, Messiah, “Jesus Christ.” When Jesus’ followers moved beyond Palestine to Antioch, in Syria, they were called “Christians,” those who believed that Jesus was the Christ (Acts of the Apostles 11:26).
Why did Jesus point to His miracles when John’s disciples asked if He was the One? Jesus’ healings are an important aspect of His being the Messiah. The Gospels do not speak of Jesus’ “miracles.” The Synoptics speak of them as dynameis “deeds of might” or “power” (Mk 6:2, 5; Lk 10:13; 19:16; Mt 13:54). John speaks of them as erga, “works” or “deeds” (Jn 5:36; 10:25, 32) and as sēmeia, “signs.”
Matthew summarizes Jesus’ healing ministry: “He drove out the spirits with a command and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He Himself bore our sicknesses away and carried our diseases’” (Mt 8:16-17; Is 53:4).
St. Thomas Aquinas comments: “God’s power is confirmed through a multiplicity of cures … ’He took our infirmities’ that is, He took them away; such that infirmities may be taken as light sins. ‘And bore our diseases’ (that is, our greater sins), that is, He carried them away: or, since He Himself is God’s power and wisdom, ‘He took away our infirmities,’ namely, of suffering and death. Hence, He accepted the ability to suffer for the sake of taking away our infirmity and sickness, etc. ‘Who His own self bore our sins in His body upon he tree: that we, being dead to sin, should live to justice’ (1 Pet 2:24)” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Matthew, 8).
Notice that Thomas connects our physical sicknesses and sins with our physical and spiritual healing: “Christ came specially to teach and to work miracles for the good of man, principally as to the salvation of his soul” (3a. 44, 1, ad 4).
Rather than using power to discipline or punish us, Jesus used His power to take our weakness and sickness upon Himself. St. Thomas affirms: “Although Christ came in ‘the infirmity of flesh’ (Is 53:3), which is manifested in the passions (emotions), yet, He came in the power of God, and this had to be manifest by miracles” (3a. 43, 1, ad 2).
Jesus’ physical healings direct us to His spiritual healings: “Christ came into the world and taught in order to save man, according to John 3:17: ‘God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world but that the world might be saved by Him.’ Therefore it was fitting that Christ by miraculously healing men in particular, should prove Himself to be the universal and spiritual Savior of all” (3a. 44, 3).
Thomas recalls that St. Leo emphasized that both Jesus’ human and divine natures operated in the miracles: “Pope Leo says (Letter to Flavian, 28) that, while there are two natures in Christ, there is one, the Divine, which shines forth in miracles; and another, the human, which submits to insults; yet, each communicates its actions to the other: in so far as the human nature is the instrument of the Divine action, and the human action receives power from the Divine Nature” (3a. 43, 2).
Thomas reflects: “Christ came to save the world not only by Divine power, but also though the mystery of His Incarnation. Consequently in healing the sick He frequently not only made use of His Divine power, healing by way of command, but also by applying something pertaining to His human nature” (3a.44, 3, ad 2).
Jesus’ ultimate intention was the healing of the soul: “The end of the outward healing worked by Christ is the healing of the soul. Consequently it was not fitting that Christ should heal a man’s body without healing his soul” (3a.44, 3, ad 3).
Christ drew people to Himself: “Christ, when He willed, changed the minds of men by His Divine power, not only by the bestowal of righteousness and the infusion of wisdom, which pertains to the end of miracles, but also by outwardly drawing men to Himself …” (3a.44, 3, ad 1).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, which, in this case, is the first part. This is followed by the question, which in these references is question 43 or 44. Thirdly are the articles from which the quotations are taken. If the reference is to Thomas’ response to an objection that he raised in the beginning of the article, it is identified as “ad” (the Latin for “to”) followed by the number of the objection.