When I was a kid, I found a book that featured dozens of Eucharistic miracles. I was enraptured by the dramatic situations that led up to the glorious moment when a host dripped blood or turned into human flesh before an astonished congregation. For years after discovering this book, I didn’t bow my head during the consecration. I did not want to miss even a single moment when the miracle happened, when the normal looking bread would reveal its hidden nature in an utterly spectacular way.
I never got to see a miracle like any described in this book. This does not mean that the consecrations were not spectacular in their own quiet way, or that I was not rewarded for attending them. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” was not merely a comment meant for doubting Thomas after the Resurrection. But as a kid, knowing that God could and did work visible wonders, it was a little disappointing that I could not witness one.
Miracles are an essential part of our Christian faith. As scientifically-minded moderns, we are often tempted to read the biblical miracles as inspirational stories or metaphors pointing to truth. However, our Christian faith demands belief in literal miracles. After all, Mary’s virginal birth is not an optional belief, and it is more physically and literally miraculous than even walking on water. It makes no sense to accept only theologically “necessary” miracles; miracles happen.
I found myself this past week sitting at the bedside of a dear friend dying of a horrible and unexplainable cancer. Throngs of family and friends have been praying for a miracle since the outset. I have also been praying, using every novena, rosary, and special patron saint I could manage.
Of course I prayed for a miracle: that God guide the surgeon’s hand; that God allow the chemo to work; and that she would be accepted for an experimental treatment program and that she would be one of the tiny fraction of patients for whom it worked. But this past week, sitting at her bedside, with all of the scientific options utterly exhausted, I tried to pray for a miracle—not just with God working through science and doctors—but a real one, a miracle that could only be the hand of God because all other hands have failed.
It is hard to truly believe in miracles. I found a little voice inside my head objecting to my prayers. “That’s not going to happen,” it said, “don’t waste your time. Pray for her happy death.” I found myself wondering what a miracle would even look like.
Of course, praying for a happy, holy death is essential. But meditating on my lack of faith, I discovered how truly difficult it was to allow God his omnipotence. I felt my arrogance and weakness in doubting God’s abilities even as I cried out to him.
A line from Scripture kept floating into my head: “Lord, if you had only been here, my brother would not have died.” I have never considered before how angry Martha’s words sound. Where were you, God? I know you could have helped. Why didn’t you? For hours, I made Martha’s words my words. “Lord, if you had only been here, none of this would have happened. My friend, so beautiful, so full of hope and potential, would not be dying. Where were you?”
Our modern age has been so inflicted with doubt, with apostasy, and with the watering down of faith to the point where most people’s religious impulses are only weakly articulated good manners. You would think that a shockingly good miracle—a dancing sun over Washington, DC, or a viral video of an apparition—would do us some good.
As I sat, angrily repeating Martha’s words to Christ, I could not ignore what she said just after her emotional outburst: “But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, he will give to you.” And, without hesitating, she responded with affirming belief in Christ’s immediate reassurance: “Your brother will rise again.” Angry, hurt, and confused as to why her friend and her Lord had not come in time, she nonetheless believed Christ: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, will live.”
Sitting beside my friend, I realized that, while we often think that Martha’s hoped-for miracle came after this conversation, when Christ commanded Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, I had missed the first miracle. Christ seemed to have failed Martha. He seemed not to have been there when she needed him the most. But, miraculously, Martha still believed. She did not even need to ask him for the visible miracle because she had faith that the more important miracle—the miracle of eternal life after death—had already been granted. Sure, we hope God will heal the bodies of our loved ones, but isn’t the miracle of eternal life even better?
Martha got a visual miracle in addition to this greater miracle of faith and hope. I do not know if God will also grant my prayers in this way. But I think that, as angry and as hurt as I might feel, I too have seen a greater miracle. Our world tells us that our faith in Christ as the resurrection and the life is silly, old-fashioned, and pointless. But my friend, facing a horrible death that seems to make no sense, has not lost her faith that she will never die, even though she might die. Her faith may be buffeted, filled with nagging doubts, or the feeling that Christ has not come, but against all odds, she still believes. I sat in her room, listening to her sing hymns in a broken voice, mumble along to the rosary, and cross herself during prayers. How is this not a miracle?
There is still time for a miracle that heals her body, and I think I can finally truly pray for one without caveats and without doubts. But I have already seen a miracle: not a metaphorical one, not the story of one, but the real thing, just as real as a Eucharist that drips blood on the altar. It is the miracle of faith in a faithless world. Is there any more needed miracle in this age?
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Revival of the Daughter of Jairus” painted by Ilya Repin in 1871.