It can admittedly be difficult for we moderns, who live under the Reign of Quantity -- not to mention Obama's IRS -- to appreciate a more playful approach to numbers. Think of all the numbers that convey a qualitative meaning; in fact, now that I think about it, numbers one through nine all have highly symbolic resonance, and now that I think about it a little bit more, quantities must stand for concrete qualities or else they are just airy and abstract platonic nothings. Math is just a highly symbolic language, but it's still a language.
The early Fathers, according to Benedict, "regarded forty as a cosmic number, as the numerical sign for this world. The four 'corners' encompass the whole world, and ten is the number of the commandments." Multiply them and we have "a symbolic statement about the history of the world as a whole," which "Jesus takes into himself and bears all the way through to the end."
Even before the specific temptations comes the trash talking if you are the Son of God... This is like Bill Maher-level trolling: if your God is so great, why doesn't he prove it to me? It also previews the later mockery of "If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!"
Well? Is there any truth to the charge? On the one hand, one might well ask: is this any way for a God to appear in history? No, it is not. It is probably accurate to say that no human being would have anticipated or even fantasized about it occurring in such a seemingly feeble manner.
However, this obviously cuts two ways, because it emphasizes that no human being would have concocted such a counter-intuitive script. Why? What would be the point? It seems to be the very opposite of what anyone would have wanted or thought they needed.
This "demand for proof is a constantly recurring theme in the history of Jesus' life; again and again he is reproached for having failed to prove himself sufficiently," and clearing up any and all ambiguity about his identity and mission -- in short, for having failed the Bill Maher test.
The other day, the Happy Acres Guy made a passing comment to the effect that (I'm paraphrasing) a "miracle" is not a cause, but a consequence, of faith. Seen with the eyes of faith, all sorts of things suddenly appear as miraculous. Conversely, seen through the eyes of a corrosive cynicism, nothing is miraculous. Everything just is what it is, and couldn't be otherwise. For such a person, a miracle is a priori impossible, so even if one were to occur, it would be explained away.
Indeed we know this is true, because contrary to the sacred dogma of the Reign of Quantity, existence is a non-stop miracle. Once one starts believing this, then the knowledge follows -- you know, give me faith that I may believe. It's just we are so conditioned by the modern world to not think in this way. But imagine the ancient mind, which had no such difficulty.
Now admittedly, it is entirely possible that they overshot too far in the opposite direction, regarding as miraculous things that have banal scientific explanations. But this doesn't undermine the principle that miracles not only can occur, but must occur, given the fabric of reality.
Fabric of reality? You mean physics? There you go again, trying to reduce quality to quantity! You really must stop doing that. Abstractions are fine, but don't start with them, rather, start with the real world.
I would also say that the miraculous is at the edge of articulation. The typical infertile egghead conflates the linguistically mappable world with the world itself, and therefore excludes himself from the miraculous. Much of Christian dogma is designed, so to speak, to prevent this constriction from occurring, because it can in no way be "contained" by the mind or by language. The "unexpectedness" of Jesus is just one example of this.
As usual, Schuon has some very helpful things to say on this subject. The miraculous, he writes, is "an interference of the marvelous in the sensory realm." And I say, if this weren't happening all the time, the world would be a rather boring place indeed. Even the fact that it is not boring is evidence of the miraculous. In other words, from where does all this novelty, creativity, and upside surprise come?
How did life appear out of matter? Consciousness from biology? Truth and beauty from monkeys? "This phenomenon has in itself nothing mysterious or problematical about it: the so-called natural laws of a lower degree of Existence can always be suspended through the intervention of a higher degree, whence the perfectly logical term 'supernatural'" (Schuon). "Scientists," he adds, "confuse the miraculous with the irrational and the arbitrary."
In other words, what is natural on one level might be supernatural on another. Looked at this way, from the standpoint of mere physics, biology is supernatural. It is trans-physics, just as the human person is trans-biology.
Thus, each "degree also has its laws, which means that the miracle is 'natural' on the universal scale, while being 'supernatural' on the earthly scale." Assuming there is a scale above the human, then from its perspective, the miraculous vertical ingressions herebelow are quite "natural," as natural as when an artist decides to create something beautiful. Which is to say, supernatural.
In Eric Metaxes' new book on the subject, he points out that the Greek word for what we translate as "miracle" is sign. Thus, in the words of Schuon, "The purpose of the miraculous phenomenon is the same as that of the Revelation which it accompanies or as a result of which, or in the shadow of which, it is produced: to elicit or to confirm faith."