The Ambiguity of Miracles
The Ambiguity of Miracles
A recent exchange of Emails with a college classmate set me to thinking about miracles. The Red Sea crossing of the people of Israel was the one that started it. More about that later.
Because when most of us think about miracles, we are inclined to dismiss anything that isn't supernatural, that is, above and beyond any human causation. Oh, we may speak of the birth of a tiny baby as a miracle. A moviemaker has applied it to the victory of the US hockey team over the Russians in the Olympics. Two trifecta winners at the Kentucky Derby have been tempted to employ that category for their fortuitous picks at the running for the roses. And I seem to remember that a certain retired clergyperson referred to the success of his bilateral knee replacement surgery as a "miracle."
But in such instances even as our mouth utters that word, miracle, a smile, a mitigating smile of self-approval, hints that we really don't mean it. We don't really think that God somehow intervened and bent the rules to oblige the beneficiary with some extremely good fortune.
Like the escape of the Israelites from the chariots of Pharaoh as they approached the Red Sea: that would be no miracle, not a real one anyway, if, as my Email correspondent maintains, it was low tide and a sandbar lurked just inches below the waterline. It happens twice every day in Gloucester MA, why not at Baal-zephon?
My seminary professor of Old Testament, Dr. Samuel Terrien, provided a slightly different scenario. He suggested that the area where the Israelites crossed was marshy and that, in corroboration, the Hebrew for Red Sea could be translated as "the sea of reeds." The Israelites, encamped on the west side of that marshy stretch, were greeted, on the morning before their imminent destruction by Pharaoh's hosts, by a fierce east wind that pushed away the water from the shallow sea. Moses and his hapless band of emigrants made it across to dry land. The Egyptian chariots didn't fare so well.
Such explanations wouldn't please Cecil B. DeMille. Etched into the memories of most of us who have seen his movie, "The Ten Commandments," are the walls of water thirty feet high, like a double tsunami suddenly frozen in place. Now that's a proper miracle... thanks to technology and the magic of Technicolor!
In my experience (such as it is, as limited as it is) miracles, the kind worth celebrating, are always a collaboration of the human and the divine. Like that miracle enshrined at the beginning of the Apostle's Creed, the virgin birth. From the very beginning of the Christian era pundits have found that assertion, that Jesus was fathered by the Holy Spirit, laughable. Polemicists seeking to discredit the church provide backhanded witness to there being something unusual about the manner of the Galilean's birth by accusing him of being a... well... a child without a father. But what about Mary? What if she had been uncooperative? What if she had chosen, like Hagar, to go off into the wilderness until her time arrived, instead of tolerating the whispers and sneers of her neighbors? She could have stopped the whole Gospel enterprise before its beginning.
Okay, as John the Baptist insisted, "God can from these stones raise up children to Abraham." If not Mary, someone else. But it still would be "someone else," another faithful woman and the cooperation of her soul and body... to wit, a collaboration of the human and divine.
Like my new knees. Sure, the orthopedist was skillful, incredibly skillful. I was diligent in my rehab. Had I been born thirty years earlier, however, I would at 70 have been a virtual invalid. That a medical practitioner's artistry was involved, assisted by my own determination (and Barbara's patience), does not diminish the miraculous gift I have been given in my late maturity. And like that one leper in ten who returned to give thanks to Jesus for healing him of his cursed illness, not a day passes but I think and thank heaven and earth for my mobility. Maybe I'll rewrite the Magnificat: "My knees magnify the Lord..."
So let's go to the shore of the Red Sea again. The coincidence of a mighty wind at the right time to enable the escape could be written off as just that, a very lucky turn of events. Faith makes it a miracle. Faith perceives the hand of God behind the storm and the shining sun. Faith weaves together disparate turnings in our journey here and declares them the blessed conspiracy of the Holy Spirit. But make no mistake about it, for every faithful explanation there will be a cynical one. Like my college professor of religion fondly repeated, "You pay your money, you take your choice."
That, finally, life (and the events strung together within that duration of years) is what you make of it. Faith spies miracles at every turn... and especially when looking at my knees.