Unmiraculous Miracles

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

What does it mean when a miracle is not, well, miraculous? That is, when a miracle does not have the drama, excitement, or big production qualities that we might expect? Certainly, some miracles have plenty of drama – voices from heaven, seas parting, fires descending, and so on.  But we also know of simple, subtle miracles. Elijah, after all, encountered God not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire but in the still small voice (cf 1 Kgs 19:12).  Indeed, the two most important miracles – the Incarnation and the Resurrection – are notable for their subtlety and hiddeness: the quiet of Bethlehem, the simple presence in the upper room.

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Our Lord’s raising of the widow’s son provides another example (cf. Lk 7:11-17).  Yes, our Lord did something extraordinary in raising a man from the dead.  Yes, “fear seized them all.” They exclaimed, “God has visited his people,”and the “report about him spread through the whole of Judea and in all the surrounding region.”  Nevertheless, the miracle possesses an extraordinary simplicity. Our Lord encounters the funeral procession.  He is “moved with pity” and tells the mother, “Do not weep.”  He steps forward, touches the coffin, and says, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”  The man sits up, begins to speak, and then, in the most touching detail, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”  No angels, no voices from heaven, no earthquakes, no lightning.  Only the man Jesus giving two commands.

What does it mean when a miracle is not miraculous? First, it calls our attention to our Lord’s humanity. By His divine nature He performs the miracle.  But He is moved to do so in His human nature.  That He was “moved with pity,” refers to His Sacred Heart and His capacity to be moved with human love.  Saint Luke tells us that the deceased was “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.”  This describes our Lord Himself, and His mother.  So it should not surprise us that He turns first to the widow, in whom He sees the anticipation of Mary’s sorrow.  “Do not weep,” He tells her – as if to tell His own mother. Yes, our Lord is all-powerful.  But in His sacred humanity He places Himself within our reach, so that our misery moves Him to act on our behalf.

Second, the unremarkable miracle reminds us of grace’s power working through simple means.  Our Lord raises the dead with a simple command – spoken in regular, human words.  No choir of angels, no thundering voice, no divine megaphone. He continues to do so today through the ministry of the Church – through the all too simple words of Her ministers.  We should not doubt the power of words – of truth spoken in charity – to console, heal, transform…and raise.

We find this miraculous simplicity especially in the Sacrament of Penance, in which Jesus uses the humanity of the priest to raise a soul from the dead.  First, by simply receiving the penitent, the confessor in effect steps forward and touches the coffin.  That is, he halts the procession of death that sin has begun. By the words of absolution the priest commands the soul to arise.  And just as in Nain Jesus raised a young man, so in the confessional the priest – or, rather, Jesus through the priest – restores our youth, literally rejuvenates our soul.

Nor did Jesus allow the miracle of raising a man from the dead to obscure the importance of the man’s human relationships.  He “gave him to his mother.” So also now, the miracle of Reconciliation is also attentive to our relationships.  It accomplishes not only our spiritual resurrection but also our restoration to one another, the healing of relationships.  Or, viewed differently, as our Lord gave the man back to his mother, so Penance restores us to Mother Church, to her who – like the widow of Nain for her son – brought us to new birth, nourished us, and mourned our death in sin.

Yes, God at times works through the extraordinary.  But His preferred way of acting is through the simple ministries of the Church – the Faith taught, the Sacraments celebrated.  While we should not reject the possibility of the dramatic, we should tune our souls to find our Lord in His subtle approaches, in the humble gestures and simple words that console and give life.

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