Tasteless Miracles

[NPR, “All Things Considered,” December 27, 1996]

As I zipped open the cardboard envelope a sweet, heavy fragrance began to spill out. Rifling among the magazine and newspaper clippings I found it, a plastic bag containing a cotton ball. A drop of golden oil was soaked into the cotton. I gently opened the bag, and the scent of roses spilled into the room.

I was in the presence of a miracle—at least, that’s what some believe. Some years ago, a monk was dusting the icons at an Orthodox monastery. When he came to the icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, he noticed drops of liquid on the surface. Beads of fragrant oil were welling up from the eyes of the painted figure, and running down the surface of the board.

The news clippings continued the story. Healings. Miracles. One hundred thousand pilgrims a year. Church authorities had examined the simple plank of wood, even slept near it in the chapel all night to make sure there was no human trickery involved. The phenomenon could not be explained.

A lot of people don’t like this story. Some are skeptics who don’t believe in God, and therefore have an a priori conviction that it’s impossible. I don’t know about that. I’ve found human reason to be a fallible commodity, and won’t stake the rent on it being able to explain everything in the wide, wild world. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

But there are others who do believe in God, but just can’t believe he’d do something like this. It’s —to tell the truth, it’s kind of tacky. It’s showy, and sentimental. God, if he’s any kind of respectable deity at all, must be a paragon of exquisite taste. He certainly wouldn’t do something this offensive.

That’s where I think they’ve missed the point. This is a Christian monastery, and giving offense turns out to be a pretty consistent part of the Christian story. Since we believe that Jesus is God in human form, the story begins with God in a diaper—and as Frederick Buechner says, if you haven’t taken that seriously enough to be offended by it, you haven’t taken it seriously enough. It proceeds to God on a cross, beaten and bleeding and shamed. It’s a brutal story, one that isn’t easy to take.

Christian scriptures speak of the Cross as a stumbling block and a scandal. It breaks our complacency—our notions of dignity—and turns us again to be as children. Even people who aren’t Christian can agree that whoever God is, he’s going to be outside human control. He’s going to do things beyond our comprehension—sometimes, things which seem designed to show us how little we comprehend. Humility before this inscrutable power seems to be a recurrent theme, no matter what your faith.

Believers describe God in many ways: just, mighty, all-knowing, all-powerful. But no one accuses him of being predictable. The possibility of miracles is something we have to accept—even those which test our taste.

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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