A Miracle of Flowers

[January 25, 2014]

Wes Smith’s column this week for First Things is about the flowers at his church that continued to be fresh, after a parishioner poured out the last of his holy water into one of the vases.

The comment of a skeptic at that site clarified for me a point of miscommunication. The skeptic seems to think we are claiming that holy water is magic, and if we tested this in a controlled environment it would have this effect on flowers every time. There would be a pattern, one that kept appearing in any place and time.

Of course that is not the case, so the supposedly scientific conclusion is that this is not worth thinking about. It might be a fluke or a fraud, but it’s a one-time thing, and as such it’s unimportant. 

But the claim of a miracle turns precisely on the assertion that it is unrepeatable. It’s a miracle because this is not something that could be demonstrated in an experiment; it doesn’t fit an anytime-anyplace pattern, but overrides all expectations. 

If the test is repeatability, then miracles are off the table before we begin, because the reason they’re miracles at is is because they’re unrepeatable. 

But believers see a pattern, too, a different pattern. As Wes moves further into his column, he refers to other healings and miracles. We associate this holy-water event with other events we’ve seen or heard about. The pattern we see has do to with recognizing the same hand at work, the same Person, who does many different “impossible” things. And does them in a way that, it seems clear, we’re supposed to notice. 

It wasn’t the flowers elsewhere in the church that were preserved, or flowers at a different time of year, or the ones that didn’t receive holy water, or even both bouquets. The “artist” behind this event arranged things in this particular way, because we would notice and appreciate it. He wants us to recognize his handiwork, savor it, rejoice that he is near. When we learn of an “impossible” surgery where a tumor disappeared, or an “impossible” avoidance of a car accident, or any of a number of “impossibilities”—we think, “It’s him again. It’s our Father.”

I believe that everyone has at least one or two events of this sort in their lives. Something that you can’t explain. If you reject this sort of experience categorically, then you’ll forget most of them. (Wes quotes a secular philosopher who had an uncanny experience, but was able to “come up with an explanation for how [he] could reason this away.”) But if you remain open-minded, experiences of this sort will gradually accumulate, and you begin to recognize the pattern—the hand of the “artist”. 

The scientists are looking at one kind of evidence. They are saying “We know this painting, the Starry Night, is by Van Gogh, so this painting of Sunflowers can’t be his, because a Van Gogh painting has lots of blue”—if this were God, he would do the same holy-water trick every single time. 

Believers look instead at the kind of event it is and compare it with other experiences they’ve had, or heard about, or read about in the Bible. They say, “The same hand is at work here. This is the kind of thing he does.” 

So it seems to me there is a miscommunication here. Believers are not claiming that we have God in a box and can make him repeat a miracle exactly the same way every time. But we do claim that there is an artist who does such things, one who apparently delights in revealing his presence in these ways. Analyzing the chemical content of the holy water wouldn’t get you very far, nor would analyzing the content of the paint on a Van Gogh canvas. But we can introduce you to the artist. That’s when all the paintings start making sense.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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