The Wonder of Miracles

March 6, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
Readings : Isaiah 66: 10-13, MT 17: 1-10


Dictionary.Com defines the word “miracle” as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural. As we learn more and more about the laws of nature many events that were once considered miracles are no longer seen as such.  Perhaps, to our detriment, knowledge can turn us into skeptics. We may even be tempted into believing that true miracles never happen.

A newly converted Christian was sitting on a bench one day waiting on a bus and reading his Bible while he was waiting. Every now and then he would exclaim, “Alleluia! Praise the Lord!” A skeptic over heard his comments and came over to ask him what he was reading. He answered, “I’m reading how God parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites through. What a miracle!”

The skeptic explained, “Don’t believe everything the Bible tells you son, for example that sea is only 6 inches deep, so it really wasn’t a miracle.” The new Christian nodded his head in disappointment and kept on reading as the skeptic walked away feeling kind of proud of himself for setting the young man straight.

All of a sudden the skeptic heard the man let out a huge “ALLELUIA! PRAISE THE LORD!” At this the skeptic walked back to him and asked, “What is it this time?” The man replied excitedly in one breath, “This time it IS a miracle! God just drowned the entire Egyptian Army in 6 inches of water!”

Today’s Gospel story is told by Matthew, Mark and Luke with an almost equal amount of detail. It is significant that each of the Evangelists introduces his telling of the story with the same word, “after.” That word is something more than a connecting-link over a blank space of days; rather it sheds light on the meaning and mystery of the Transfiguration.  Matthew and Mark begin their story with the words, “Six days later”. Luke starts his version with, “About eight days after.” After what?   What’s so important that all three of the synoptic writers begin this miracle story referring to what had happened just the previous week? Let’s go back and see.

Jesus and his disciples had had their ups and downs, but right then, all was looking quite rosy.  Jesus had performed miracles, and between his cures and his gift for telling stories had converted many.  The followers of Jesus were growing in number.  When Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, and then asked the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, feeling quite expansive answered with his now famous profession of faith; “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” At first Jesus rewards Peter with great praise, “Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man!  It was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”   Can’t you just see Peter swelling with pride; maybe looking around at his peers to make sure that they heard the approbation?   But that’s not the end of it. Jesus then continues to tell Peter that he is the rock on which he will build his church. And that’s not all; Jesus tells Peter that he will give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and the power to make the rules.  Well, by now Peter is beside himself.  He can’t believe his good fortune.  But that is not the end of it either.  Jesus then proceeds to tell his disciples that he must suffer many things.  “What?”  They must be hearing wrong. Jesus continues.  He tells them that he will be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up. And, in just one moment, he shattered the disciples’ bright dream. Like some fearful nightmare, the foreshadowing of the cross fell upon their hearts, filling them with fear, and gloom, and striking down hope, and courage, and maybe even faith itself. Peter was no doubt unnerved. He thinks that there’s been a big mistake.  He tries to convince Jesus, “No, you can’t let this happen!” And then Jesus, who had just moments ago praised Peter and made him head of his church, reprimands him sternly, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way.” That’s the way that meeting ended.

The next six days are filled with silence, without word or deed, as far as the records show. The disciples had left everything they had and placed all their hopes in Jesus. Now he tells them that he must be crucified. How will they regain their lost hope, or revive their courage?

Whether it was five or seven days, they must have been terrible; their relationships, cool and distant. They probably weren’t even talking at the meals. It’s then when their hearts are numb with hurt and disbelief that Jesus takes Peter, John and James with him up onto a high mountain where they can be alone. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. They also see Moses and Elijah standing and talking with Jesus. The two together constitute “The Law and the Prophets,” which is all the authority a Jew needs. But just in case this isn’t enough, a voice comes from a cloud, “This is my Son. Listen to him!” – almost the same experience that followed Jesus’ baptism.  Then the voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  This time the voice acknowledges Jesus as son but adds the command, “Listen to him!”

But, Just as quickly as they saw the vision, it disappeared

Luke says he was half-awake when this happened. Matthew says that it was a vision. Maybe it is what the psychologists call a “liminal state.” It doesn’t matter how it happened. What matters is that they saw something up there that changed their lives. If Peter had any doubts about Jesus, whether he was Messiah or not, or if he had any questions about whether or not he should have given his life to Jesus, they were dispelled in that moment. In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, that’s all it was, an epiphany, and the shattered pieces of Peter’s life came back together, and he found new direction, purpose and power for his life.

As they come down, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anybody about this.” Then they head for Jerusalem

Here’s another miracle story: Many of you know that for twenty-one years Tom and I lived in China, Maine, about thirteen miles from Waterville.  During most of those years I had a private practice in counseling.  During those years we were members of a Catholic church in Waterville.

Doreen was a member of that church. She was a woman in her late thirties, who had married very young.  She had two teen-age sons, and a daughter and son in middle school, and a one year old.  The year-old boy had been a surprise, and initially not a happy one.  Doreen, who had gone into marriage and family right after high school graduation had recently gained the confidence to try spreading her wings and was looking forward to work outside the home when she discovered that she was pregnant.  The fact that her teenage boys were embarrassed about it and gave her a hard time didn’t help.

Doreen was a deeply religious woman and through prayer came to accept situation.  But as soon as she had come to terms with her condition, she discovered that she was carrying twins. Once again she wrestled to accept what she believed God was asking of her.  What didn’t help is that she was very sick throughout her pregnancy. In her third trimester, now fully accepting her growing family, Doreen was told that one of the infants that she was carrying had died and that she would have to carry it to term to not risk the health of the other twin. Her emotions and spirit were once again challenged. After nine months she gave birth to a healthy boy and was delivered of a dead son.  Needless to say, she was torn between joy and grief.

After the birth, Doreen had little energy.  She never felt well. Most people, including her doctor, believed that this was post-partum depression exacerbated by the death of one of her sons.  After almost a year of continued health complaints her doctor decided to run tests.  Doreen was diagnosed with fourth stage colon cancer. After months of chemotherapy she received the news that nothing more could be done and that she had only months to live.  That’s when I came into the picture.

Friends from church told me that Doreen, who could no longer leave home, wanted me to visit. That call turned into weekly sessions.  As I said, Doreen was deeply religious. Our time together included me bringing her communion, praying together, talking and her dictating letters to her children that would be opened at strategic moments in their lives: birthdays, high school graduations, and wedding days.

Doreen and I often talked about what death would be like.  She wasn’t afraid for herself, but found leaving her children before they were grown excruciatingly painful.   Doreen had good days and bad.  Sometimes she would be extremely discouraged, depressed, and paralyzed with sadness. Once when I was visiting her she told me about a strange pattern that she had noticed.  When she was at her lowest moments, she said, it never failed that someone brought her roses.  She had come to see roses and a sign of God’s presence in her life. They always revived her strength and lifted her spirits.

On one particular day when I was scheduled to visit Doreen, I was in a rush. I needed to return to my office earlier than usual to see scheduled clients.  Bringing her communion meant that I had to drive out of my way to get to church, go into the rectory to get the key to the church from a very talkative secretary, cross the street, unlock the church, unlock the tabernacle, get a host, re-lock the tabernacle, relock the church, and return the key to the rectory.  That day, behind schedule, I decided to skip communion.  I was reluctant to do so, because I knew that it was a weekly comfort to Doreen.  Just as I was thinking about this, I passed a florist.  I stopped quickly, ran in, and bought a white rose. When I got to Doreen’s home, I told her about my time crunch, and suggested that the rose would be God’s presence for us that day.  We prayed together, shared and not for the first time, cried.  Once again, Doreen brought up the topic of life after death.  Would she be able to see her children growing up?  We both concluded we trusted in a loving God, and whatever happened after death would be good.  I’ll always remember what I said after that, flippantly as I’m sometimes known to do, I said, “I could get hit by a bus on my way home, but you’re likely to die before me.  If it’s okay, send me white roses.”

A week later, Doreen died peacefully in her sleep.  She was ready. A close friend of hers and mine, Clem, who had been our pastor up until a year before, was not able to attend Doreen’s funeral due to one in his own new parish. The week after the funeral, Clem called asked if he could come down from Bangor and have dinner with me, to talk about Doreen. We agreed on a time and place. Given that it was a small and popular place, I arrived early, got a table, ordered a glass of wine and waited.  A few minutes later Clem came in carrying a paper cone, walked up to me and handed it to me, saying, “I don’t know why, but I just felt the need to bring these to you.”  Inside were six white roses.

Was it a miracle?  What I can say is that although I was neither Doreen’s therapist nor minister, I had never shared any of our conversations with anyone.  In addition, Clem and I had been close friends for about fifteen years when this occurred and he knew that I loved flowers.  I had celebrated a number of special events with him involved, had been hospitalized several times; and never once had he given me flowers, much less roses.  I have recalled that event numerous times, sometimes with skepticism.  What I can tell you is how I felt when I first looked into that paper cone and saw the roses.  I had no doubt that they had come from Doreen and I had a warm peaceful feeling, knowing that I would never fear death; that whatever it was like, Doreen was telling me that it was okay.

I think that miracles are less about the actual event and more about the effect that the experience has on an individual.  One person sees a sunset and experiences it as a glare in the windshield; a nuisance; an obstacle to safe driving.  Another person is sitting on the rocks in Biddeford Pool viewing that same sunset and is moved to praise God.

A person, whose life is going down the toilet because she can’t stop drinking alcoholically, starts going to AA, stops drinking and one day at a time begins to apply the twelve steps in all of her affairs.  This could be explained psychologically, but to her and those who love her, it’s a miracle.

Could it be that God has sent many miracles our way and we have failed to acknowledge them as “miracles,” and considered them to be just mere coincidence?

Instead of miracles, John Shea uses the phrase revelation-faith experiences.  He says, “We must be sensitive to the depth of the everyday, to the extraordinary that bursts from the mundane, to the marvelous ways of what we take for granted.” He continues:

“Someday a disastrous event will threaten our conviction that we are ‘held, held fast by love.  The revelation experiences, “becomes an ‘anchor’, a touchstone experience for the ongoing belief in God. . . In revelation-faith experiences, Mystery is sensed as being ‘on the make’.  It initiates the experience.  We are in a situation of response . . . the Mystery moves toward us – which is the experiential base for all talk of ‘grace”.

At the Transfiguration the dispirited disciples needed, at that moment in their lives to see the glory of Christ revealed. And when his glory was revealed, they were able to get their lives back on track.

In Isaiah God is presented to us as a loving mother who comforts and nurtures us.  Like a sensitive, caring mother God recognizes our needs and acts to meet them. We are in a situation of response.

In the middle of our struggles God gives us hope. That is what the Transfiguration is all about. When we are in pain, when we have doubts, when we feel alone what we need to know is that God is still God. Christ is still Lord. Beyond the darkness – whatever that darkness may be – there is the dawn.