Augustine, a Christian theologian and Bishop in Africa who lived in the early 400’s wondered: God the Creator made the world and everything in it, and we are created in God’s image. We are comfortable with this. We have no problem claiming God to be the creator of Nature and humankind. But can God incarnate feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish?
This Bible story is one of the hardest miracle stories to digest (no pun intended). The creation of the universe is foundational, fundamental. But miracles are rare and “beyond the usual course and order of nature,” so they are harder for us to wrap our brains around.
This is true also of the story of Moses striking the rock with his staff causing drinking water to flow. We don’t see this sort of thing happening around us and we have to ask, did it really happen? And we know that the storytellers of the Bible were not concerned whether their stories were factual or not. It simply was not of concern. Which is hard for us because we are deeply concerned, but do not have access to the answers to our questions.
William Barclay was a Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow. He wrote many Bible Commentaries and died in 1978. Barclay suggested that although we will never know what exactly happened that day on the hillside with Jesus, we may look at it in three ways.
One: we may regard it simply as a miracle in which Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes.
Two: it may be that this was really a sacramental meal, just like our Communion. Each person received the thrill and wonder of the presence of Jesus and the reality of God turned the sacramental crumb into something which richly nourished their hearts and souls – as happens at every communion service to this day.
Three: the crowd was on a nine-mile journey. All Jewish people travelled with their own bottle-shaped basket, and surely would have brought provisions for the way. But it may be that they would not produce what they had, to share with all, because they needed it for themselves. But the child shared, and Jesus thanked God for it, and shared it. Moved by his example, everyone who had anything did the same; and in the end there was enough and more than enough, for all.
It may be that this is a miracle in which the presence of Jesus turned a crowd looking out for themselves, into a fellowship of sharers. It may be that this view is the biggest miracle of all – one which changed not loaves and fishes, but men and women.
However you choose to understand this miracle story, the question still remains. Are miracles still happening today?
Recently in the news, there was a story, about a “Mystery ‘Angel’ Priest who appeared out of nowhere at the scene of a bad car accident, performed a “miracle” and then disappeared.
A young woman was pinned between the steering wheel and the seat. A rescue crew arrived at the scene and worked to get her out of the mangled car for 45 minutes, but they were unable to free her. As her condition worsened she asked if someone would pray out loud. A priest with a clerical collar and anointing oil, appeared and prayed over the girl. Shortly after, the rescue workers were able to free her and send her to the hospital. When they turned to thank the priest, he was gone.
After a few days in the headlines as a modern day miracle, the priest came forward acknowledging that it was him. He commented, “You must remember, there were many people praying there, many, many people…and they were all praying obviously for healing and for her safety. I was probably part of the answer to their prayers, I came by and anointed and absolved, (but) I didn’t say another word.”
Did the priest have to vanish into thin air for this event to be a miracle, or is it a miracle because after 45 minutes and the girl near death asked for prayer, the priest arrived, and the girl was freed?
Aristotle wrote, “Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions. So we ask, what is a miracle? We all have different definitions, ideas, and beliefs about miracles.
Let’s look at this within the context of the laws of Nature and science. As science progresses, we have learned to explain the phenomenon of how our world works in a scientific manner. Some of us believe that when the laws of nature are defied, and there is no scientific explanation to apply, then God must have acted. The angel priest appeared, then disappeared into thin air. Therefore, God must have done it.
This theology is often called “God of the Gaps” theology. It also gets mixed in with what we think of as magic, which is a really loaded word, and Jesus never claimed to be a magician. Although many of us don’t have a hard time claiming that the world is rather magical.
The danger with this theology is that once we discover that the laws of nature were not defied after all, it has the potential to damage our faith. What we thought was God, was Mother Nature, or an ordinary occurrence. A real priest stepped forward. And then we miss the miracle.
C.S. Lewis published a theology of miracle, using science, philosophy, and theology, in which he observed that something outside of pure nature has to exist.
Because we can manipulate, change, and influence nature. We can change the course of nature. I can cut down a tree and make a chair. Nature does not always continue its natural course. If I introduce a new stimuli into what was going to occur naturally, then Nature digests it, assimilates it, and the result comes out different. We can call it rational thought, or Reason, or even Divine Reason.
He argues that Reason cannot come from our own consciousness because we are finite. But Reason has existed before humankind and will continue to exist after humankind, so it must come from somewhere else. Something exists outside of Nature that can influence Nature. I obviously didn’t invent Reason that influences nature, but Divine Reason does work through me. I can influence forces that exist outside of me.
God uses influence to work in the world. We see Jesus using the power of influence all throughout the Gospels. God has power to preserve and maintain worldly reality and divine existence in relation to it, power to order the world by general natural laws, (which sets limits to freedom, ensuring against chaos and guaranteeing optimal conditions) and power to provide for every actuality the stimulus to which each actuality must respond.
The Bible calls this several names: Divine Reason, and Divine Wisdom, and the Mind of God (Matthew 11:19).
God stands outside of Nature, and made it, and uses the power of influence to cause things to happen or not happen or happen differently than they would have, should Nature have taken its natural course.
That’s miracle. It’s an event not ascribable to human power or the laws of nature. It’s Divine Reason working through us or through created Nature, yet is free to work without, above, or against it as well.
I have personally experienced many miracles. For example, one of my friends was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given months to live. Being a single parent of two teens, she was adamant that she would live long enough to see them off to adulthood, which was not months, but years away. First she took her money out of savings and brought her kids to Europe, and then returned home and began treatment. After her first round, she was tested and told that the pancreatic cancer had vanished. Her physician was convinced that she had been misdiagnosed. About five years later, when her youngest was 18, she died of pancreatic cancer. Maybe the treatment did it, maybe it was plain magical. But it certainly was a miracle to all of us, who were praying fervently.
The problem – and why we are hesitant to believe in miracles – is two-fold. The first problem is that not only miracles are still happening today, they are too common. The natural course of events is changed from what would have been, all the time.
People wake up from comas after years, fatal illnesses disappear, people nearly die in car crashes and then something changes. Maybe God had a hand in getting you to church safely this morning. A prayer is said. The natural course of events is changed.
When we define miracle more broadly, they are so common we don’t see them. It’s like a fish looking around the rock beds and seaweed, not even noticing the water. It’s like looking out the window at a garden; at the flowers, trees, and birds, and not even noticing the glass.
We just see miracle as everyday life and then we revert back to “God of the Gaps” theology expecting God to do only things that defy nature.
The other part of the problem is that we can notice miracles, we can ignore miracles, we can expect miracles, and we can explain away miracles. We can pray for them, do everything in our power to change the course of natural events, but the one thing we cannot do is demand them. And when miracles do not occur, we tend to blame God, for not caring for us, or even for deciding not to grant us a miracle, not taking into account how God works in the world, by influence, and not domination and control.
Personally, these past few weeks I have contemplated my definition and recognition of the miracles I have heard about and encountered (which may or may not be God’s definition). And my understanding and faith in the magical, miraculous wonders of God, Divine Reason, has expanded and grown. For that I am thankful. For each of your journeys through the faith, and power, and intense joy of miracle, I am prayerful.