When you’re driving, you pay attention to signs. Some signs inform you to go in one direction, others order you to “turn here,” and still others tell you how fast you can go. Signs tell us important things.
The original word for “sign” was the Greek sémeion which became the Latin “signum” (from which we also get “signal,” “insignia” and “signature.”) Signum can mean anything from an “identifying mark” (think “X marks the spot”) to “proof” and even a “banner to follow.”
It can also mean a sign from heaven. That is what the evangelist John meant in his Gospel’s “Book of Signs,” which begins in chapter 1 (v 19) and goes through chapter 12. It precedes the “Book of Glory,” which deals with Christ’s Paschal Mystery. The Book of Signs takes up a large part of John’s Gospel. This is because, as the late Scripture scholar, Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown, said of the “Book of Signs,” it’s the part of the Gospel where “the Word reveals himself to the world and to his own …”
In the Gospel of John, “sign” is also used to mean “miracle.” Unlike the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, John does not record very many miracles of Jesus. There are only seven listed in John, but each tells us very special things we need to know about Jesus. The seven signs are:
- Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11);
- Healing the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54);
- Healing the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-15);
- Feeding the 5,000 (Jn 6:5-14);
- Walking on water (Jn 6:16-21);
- Healing the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7); and
- Raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45).
Two of these signs are part of this year’s cycle of Sunday Lenten Gospels: the man born blind (March 26) and the raising of Lazarus (April 2). Two more signs — the healing of the official’s son and the healing of the paralyzed man — appear in the weekday Gospels for March 27 and 28. So the current season of Lent presents us with four of John’s seven signs.
Each of these signs points us along the path toward realizing the whole point of John’s Gospel, which may be best summed up in what is often called the “mission verse:” Jn 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John’s “signs” help us to walk in the path of believers, the road that disciples follow toward eternal life with God.
The seven signs also show us truths about Jesus, the Word of God.
The first sign — the wedding wine at Cana — is meant to remind us of Jesus’ mission: “the hour” when he is glorified upon the cross. In this first sign, we hear Jesus tell Mary that “my hour has not yet come.” However, with this first miracle, Jesus sets out firmly on the path to that hour.
The water turned into wine is also significant itself, because it had been water meant for washing and now becomes an abundance of wine. As the U.S. bishops remind us in their introduction to this Gospel, this first sign “represents the replacement of the Jewish ceremonial washings and symbolizes the entire creative and transforming work of Jesus.” The wine, which becomes the finest of the evening, also points toward the messianic banquet, the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. We are reminded of this feast each time we go to Communion: “Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb” …
The healing of the official’s son takes place at a distance. All Jesus has to do is tell the man: “Go your way. Your son will live.” This emphasizes that Jesus’ word alone has power and reminds us that he is God, as the John’s prologue says: “the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).
The third and sixth signs — the healings of the paralyzed man and of the man born blind — both happen on a Sabbath, which leads Jesus into controversy with the religious leaders of his time. However, through these signs we can see Jesus as “the Lord of the Sabbath” (a title used by the other three Gospel writers, though not in John.)
These two signs also show us the correct path of discipleship. The man at the pool in Jerusalem has waited 38 years to be healed. Yet, when he is, the man immediately goes to the officials and tells them that Jesus healed him: he betrays Jesus. By contrast, the man born blind, after persecution by the same officials, comes to believe in Jesus and “worshiped him” (Jn 9:38).
Servite Fr. Neal Flanagan notes that this man born blind passage — used to teach catechumens today — has probably instructed catechumens for ages.
“John is writing of the physical cure,” Fr. Flanagan noted, “in such a way that it reflects and calls to mind the cure of spiritual blindness — from birth — granted to those who wash sacramentally in the pool that is truly Jesus, the ‘sent one.’”
The fourth and fifth signs — feeding of the 5,000 and walking on water — are meant to remind us of how Jesus fulfills the promises of the Old Testament. God fed the Israelites in the desert and parted the waters of the Red Sea before them. “These signs are connected,” the U.S. bishops remind us of the fourth and fifth signs, “much as the manna and the crossing of the Red Sea are in the Passover narrative, and symbolize a new exodus.”
The final sign — raising Lazarus from the dead — is the miracle that brought “his hour” upon Jesus. It is because of this act that the Sanhedrin decided Jesus had to die. This is also a sign that again points us on the path of discipleship followed by Martha of Bethany.
As Fr. Brown wrote, Martha “already believes that Jesus is the Messiah,” before he raises Lazarus. However, like the man born blind, Jesus leads her to a deeper faith, Fr. Brown wrote, that “Jesus is not only the resurrection but also the life, so that whoever believes in him will never die.” Only then does Jesus call to Lazarus.
It is not only catechumens and candidates in our RCIA programs who are shown the signs set out along John’s Gospel. As we move deeper into Lent, our own reflections on the seven signs can lead each of us to believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.”
Sources: usccb.org; “The Collegeville Bible Commentary”; “An Introduction to the New Testament”; “Strong’s Lexicon”; ewtn.com; Catholic News Agency; the “Roman Missal”; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; and etymonline.com.
Kasten is the author of several books, including “Linking Your Beads” (OSV press) about the rosary.