29 July 2018
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Some people thought it was the end of the world. The flames shot hundreds of feet into the air all around them, and the smoke was so dense they couldn’t always see who they were trying to rescue. Over 1,200 people lost their lives. It was the worst wildfire in U.S. history—the Great Peshtigo fire of October 8, 1871—just an hour north of here.
The fire extended into three counties: Oconto, Door, and Kewaunee Counties, on both sides of the bay of Green Bay. It was a massive inferno: 1.2 million acres and over 2 billion trees were reduced to ash. But, in the midst of that, a small area in Door County remained untouched. It was around the chapel where the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to Sr. Adele Brise twelve years before. The grass was as green after the fire as it had been before.
There’s no logical, scientific, or natural reason why the fire should’ve stopped at the edge of the chapel grounds. But it did. By all accounts, it was a miracle.
And we have another story of a miracle in the gospel today: the multiplication of loaves and fish. There’s no rationale to explain how Jesus was able to feed (fully) over 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fish. It defies explanation—other than to call it a miracle.
And miracles are great things. They’re signs to us that there’s more to life than meets the eye. There’s more going on than we can know or understand. And they also help to shore up our faith when it gets shaky. Miracles invite people to believe in Jesus—to believe in who he is and what he says. And so, miracles are good—and even necessary—things.
The problem with these kinds of miracles is that, of course, they don’t happen all the time. You know, it’s great that the Peshtigo Fire didn’t consume the chapel and all those who took refuge there. But wouldn’t it have been a greater miracle if the fire had been stopped before it even started? Or with the feeding of the 5,000, it’s great that they were fed. But why do people still go hungry and starve today? If God can do these miracles, then why not do them all the time?
And the answer is actually pretty simple: Our faith isn’t supposed to be in what we can see and understand, our faith is in what we cannot see and cannot understand—namely, God. Miracles help to feed our need for “proof” that God exists, that God is not bound by the same limitations of time, space, and physics that we are. They’re reminders that while there’s “heaven and earth,” there’s also “a new heaven and a new earth” we’re looking forward to—in faith.
The entire “agenda” of Jesus in the Gospel of John is to move his people from faith in signs (and miracles are one of those signs) to faith in him—without the signs. Now, he still does miracles—even today, because all of us are on a journey of faith. We still need miracles to help us have faith. But it’s as Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” [John 20:29].
So, miracles are good, and wonderful, and amazing—it’s why they’re called miracles. But, at the same time, Jesus is pushing us to be amazed by what we cannot see, or by what strikes us being…ordinary. And, of course, the Eucharist (and all the sacraments) fit that description.
Every time we celebrate the Mass, we’re in the presence of a miracle. Bread becomes the Flesh of Christ. Wine becomes the Blood of Christ. Not a symbol of Jesus, not a reminder of his presence among us, but his actual presence. It’s a miracle—it defies the laws of physics, the laws of science; it defies nature. The Eucharist—according to all we know about the world and how it works—shouldn’t be here. But it is.
And this type of miracle is different than the miraculous feeding of 5,000 people, and the miracle of the Peshtigo Fire. The Eucharist is a miracle we cannot see. And, even with the Eucharistic miracles that do exist—miracles where the host becomes physical flesh and the wine becomes physical blood, proven as such under the microscope—even with those Eucharistic miracles, there still isn’t an explanation how it happened—mechanically speaking.
Now, we know how it happened. The miracle happens because God sends down the Holy Spirit, and the priest (standing in the person of Jesus) speaks those same words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Jesus is the Word of God, the same God who created the world “in the beginning.” And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God’s spoken word makes things happen. The miracle of the Eucharist happens because Jesus the Word of God said (and continues to say), “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” Jesus’ words are transformative. So we know how the bread and wine are changed.
But, again, the Eucharist is a miracle we don’t ordinarily see with our eyes. We can only approach it with faith. But that doesn’t make it any less of a miracle. What’s one reason to come to Mass? Well, to encounter a miracle; a sign that God—after all these ages—is still with his people, wanting his life and ours to be one.
So there’s the Peshtigo Fire, the feeding of the 5,000, and the Eucharist—all amazing miracles. But then there are the “forgotten miracles,” the miracles of ordinary life that we have to remember are miracles—and defy science and the laws of nature. And I’ll mention just two.
The first is human life. But I don’t necessarily mean just birth and death; I mean human life in its entirety. There’s a law of nature which Charles Darwin picked up on, and he saw it “survival of the fit;” the idea that only the strongest survive. It’s foundational to the theory of evolution, and it’s observable all over the place. But with human life, this particular law of nature is far exceeded.
We humans don’t need to be as intelligent as we are in order to “survive.” We human don’t need the complex structures of society and commerce we have in order to “survive.” The human ability to take raw materials from the earth and transform into something totally different is far beyond the need to “survive.” The miracle of human life is that we’re made not just to “survive,” we’re made to “have dominion over the earth”—as it says in Genesis—and to “thrive,” not just “survive.”
Human life is a miracle. Based on the laws of nature, human beings don’t need to exist, and we shouldn’t exist. But we do. Our very existence is a miracle—something to be amazed by.
And, second, is the miracle of faith. No other creature in the known universe has the sense of a world beyond this one. No other creature looks to the heavens for answers, or for consolation or inspiration. We’re certainly members of the animal kingdom. But there’s no animal out there like us, who has a conscience, a sense of “self,” a sense of the mysterious “other”—the “gods” who are part of our lives.
That awareness of “something greater” is the miracle of faith. Science can’t explain it. The laws of nature maybe only hint at it. There’s no rationale for us to have faith, or to look to the heavens. But we do, as human beings have done for all of recorded history. Faith itself is weird and amazing. Faith is a miracle, like human life. But we sometimes (maybe oftentimes) overlook it as being any extraordinary, or “out of this world.”
Protection from a blazing fire, the feeding of 5,000 people, the Eucharist, human life, faith itself—they’re all miracles. They’re all things that shouldn’t exist—according to the laws of science and nature. But they do. And they exist as invitations for us to believe in something greater than ourselves. Consider the miracles you’re aware of—even those “ordinary” ones—and how the Lord is calling you…to have faith in him.