I have thought a lot about miracles these past few weeks. July 15 marked the 5-year anniversary of my grandmother being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Sometimes, when we are talking, she cries and says she doesn’t know how she’s still alive…but she’s grateful and feels she has something she is supposed to do.
Is her survival from cancer a miracle?
This past week, my family spent some time at the Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the National Shrine, in DC. I wanted to go, since I had never seen the stunningly beautiful space, with gold mosaic tiles adorning some 70 chapels and oratories, celebrating the manifestation of the Blessed Virgin—her appearances—to people throughout the world. I also wanted to go because my dear friend and colleague Cynthia received her PhD there at the Catholic University of America….so it’s a special place!
As we walked around the Shrine, we saw all of these spaces of worship and prayer. I thought about how much Blessed Mary means to countless people throughout the world, who remember these moments of encounter.
Are these miracles?
What do we mean by miracles? How do we understand them?
I remember an older gentleman at my former parish, St. Benedict’s, who asked me if one had to believe in miracles to be a Christian. I told him that I thought one had to at least believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that this is our miracle par excellence.
But, I’ve thought a great deal about miracles…those times in my own life when I would say I have witnessed something….more….when I have been part of something…miraculous…
Today, we reflect on a wonderful miracle story, in this text from St. John’s Gospel account. Picture it: all these people who have gathered to hear Jesus, to be near him. Some five thousand in all. And, Jesus asks Philip how they can get something to eat, “for [Jesus] himself knew what he was going to do,” the text says.
As, maybe, to be expected, the disciples begin with what is impossible: “six month’s wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to eat a little.” But, that’s the human economy speaking. The human economy looks at a profit-loss margin, at a cash-on-hand assessment, and it sees….impossibility.
But, suddenly, he appears in the story, this little, unnamed boy with a small basket of food. Andrew somehow found him in the crowd, and he brings him over. “He has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they with so many people?”
This little, seemingly insignificant boy. “Fish Boy” I have taken to calling him. Jesus comes and transforms the situation, opens up possibilities not yet imagined.
“Then Jesus took the loaves, and when we had given thanks, he distributed them…”
Does that sound familiar to you? It should:
On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ too bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples…. (Eucharistic Prayer A, BCP 362).
Twelve baskets were left over that day, a surplus of blessings spilled forth when Jesus transformed their experience, when those gathered were transported from a human economy to a Divine economy, a space of grace…
Friends, this is what we mean by Eucharistic imagination, by the way our liturgy and practice of prayer shapes our common life, giving us eyes to see and ears to hear the voice of God in our world today.
So, do I believe in miracles? Yes…absolutely….
I believe that miracles happen when we open ourselves to participate with God in the world. Cynthia mentioned this great quote that our new Presiding Bishop Curry quoted from Archbishop Tutu who quoted from St. Augustine: “Without us, God won’t. Without God, we can’t. But with God, we can and we will.”
Miracles happen, and we are called to participate with God in making them real. Isn’t this the deep teaching of the Incarnation? That God chooses to limit Godself, enter into our created world in order to participate with it in the eventual redemption of all creation? This Divine economy that transforms all existence into a means of grace? What we call sacramental permeability, that realization that our stuff, our bread, wine, offerings, gifts….our whole lives….can be transformed by God to be agents of grace in the world.
It’s a high calling to be a partner in the miracle business. That’s why Fish Boy has become one of my patron saints….this seemingly insignificant boy with a little basket of food. His willingness enables Jesus to transform the entire situation…. Meditate on that a minute.
The KKK marched in my hometown yesterday. I shared some of this on Facebook, and by doing that, I shared in a deeply meaningful conversation with Jason Voyles, Jim Taflinger, Ron Walker, with colleagues from around the Diocese…and with Cynthia and Alan. I needed the community as I struggled with this…this reality that hit closer to home than it ever has, with my sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew being targets of the hatred and racism of this warped ideology…just because of the color of their skin and their heritage.
How do we respond? How do we understand our own role in standing up for love, for peace, for equality, for harmony, for understanding…in the face of this prejudice that twists our very Christian practice in the burning of crosses?
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”
In my mind—my imagination—this young boy looked around and saw a great need, a hunger. He saw all these folks standing around, looking for hope…and he realized they all needed to eat. And, he realized his own potential to offer something to the community, for the common good.
That basket was his possession. That was his, and he had a right to do whatever he wanted to with it: eat it all himself, share with his family and friends, sell some and make a bit of money, or throw it away and be completely wasteful. He had a right to do any of these things.
But he had a calling to do something profound for the entire community…he had a calling…an opportunity to give of himself…to see beyond himself.
In taking counsel with Cynthia and Alan, we reflected together on “what is the counterpoint to this experience we are having?” The hatred, judgmentalism, prejudice, ego-driven agendas…this Americanized Christianity that we bump up against that seeks only to hold on to our individualism…the way we feel this darkness and fear when we turn on the news and see…all this…. How do we respond?
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”
And we can understand the disciples concern: “but what are they among so many people?”
“Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.”
And the leftover fragments “filled twelve baskets.”
The counterpoint—our response—is nothing less than our willingness to sacrifice ourselves…to be willing to be used….to give ourselves over to the Divine economy…to that Eucharistic imagination that shows us the utter audacity of grace that invites us into God’s living Presence.
The counterpoint is the practice of our Christian faith, a practice that looks beyond merely asserting our rights in an effort to preserve our own self-interest…and steps into a space of sacrifice for the common good, for the building of a true spiritual community of peace, compassion, equality, and justice.
The counterpoint is the transformation of the very ways we understand our relationship with God and one another, recognizing that maybe asking “When were you saved” is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking, “When were you willing to lose yourself? To be lost…in God and in God’s purpose for your life?” This is what the Practice of Christian mindfulness is about: self-sacrifice, a willingness to be used, a desire to participate with God in being a miracle in the world today.
This is why Fish Boy is now one of patron saints. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”
“So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 12, Year B
St. John 6:1-21
July 26, 2015