Fr Ray Hemingray has shared his thought for today, Sunday 25th April 2021.
Do you believe in miracles?
Last Tuesday I started reading a book which has been on my bookshelves for several years. It is entitled ‘Miracles’, and it is written by C. S. Lewis, who you may recall wrote ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’. Lewis was a writer and lay theologian, who held posts at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. I think I bought the book on the assumption that it would contain a discussion of the many miracles attributed to Jesus. I vaguely remember not getting far with the book all those years ago, so I thought I would give it another try.
I now know why I did not get very far with the book the first time around. It’s heavy stuff! Lewis does not intend to examine all the historical evidence for the miracles we read about in the Bible. The book contains an extended philosophical reflection on whether we can believe in what we would refer to as the ‘supernatural’, and the arguments between the ‘naturalist’ and the ‘supernaturalist’ schools of thought. I think it’s a book by an academic for academics. Not having a degree in philosophy, I have to confess to struggling with it – and after two chapters I have again given up on the book! So to avoid putting you off reading any further, I will move on from the book and give you three reasons as to why I believe in miracles, and I will leave you to reflect on whether you believe in them, too.
Firstly, there are the historical records of Jesus performing what we call ‘miracles’. For example, on many occasions Jesus is recorded as having healed people instantly by just speaking to them. We say that such an event is supernatural, because we cannot understand how it can happen. A miracle is an event which is contrary to or outside the laws of nature as we understand them.
There is a large volume of accounts of the miracles performed by Jesus. To start with, there are the Gospels, written by people who lived at the time of Jesus. If they did not actually witness all the miracles, they would have heard about them from reports of others who did witness them.
So how reliable is all this historical evidence? In his book, ‘Questions of Life’, the Rev. Nicky Gumbel, who developed the Alpha Course, points out that, for example, there are only 9 or 10 manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s book, ‘Gallic Wars’, all written 900 years after the events described in them (and most people accept these writings of Caesar as reflecting what actually happened in those wars), whereas the Gospels were written by people who lived at the time of Jesus. And, within 300 years of Jesus’s death, there were over 5,000 copies of the New Testament in Greek, 10,000 in Latin and 9,300 others. That is a lot of evidence.
Secondly, if we believe that Jesus was the Son of God and performed miracles, can we really pick and choose between what in the Gospels we believe happened and what we are not prepared to believe happened? If eyewitnesses saw Jesus heal the sick instantly, raise Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter and the widow of Nain’s son from the dead, are we allowed to say that the feeding of the 5,000 or the feeding of the 4,000 never happened – even though I know that those stories stretch the credulity of a lot of people! There’s a challenge for you to think about!
Thirdly, I come to my own experience. Early in my curacy, I was asked to visit a lady who lived in one of our parishes, whom I was told was dying from cancer in Addenbrookes Hospital. I will call her Mary (not her real name). When I arrived at her bedside, she looked very close to death. Her breathing was difficult, she was very pale and drawn, it was difficult for her to speak, and there were just odd wisps of hair on her head, no doubt a result of her treatment. I spoke to her, read to her and said some prayers for her. Thinking that she had not long to live, I asked her if she would like me to anoint her with holy oil. She indicated that she would like that, so I anointed her. And then I left her, thinking that I would never see her again.
A few days later, I heard that Mary had improved, and two weeks later she was allowed to return home. I visited her regularly. Our former Rector and I prayed for her almost every day. In particular, I prayed that she might live at least long enough to see her 13 year old daughter leave school at 18. Over the ensuing weeks and months, she grew stronger, her hair regrew and became quite thick. And eventually she felt well enough to resume her teaching job, part-time, though eventually it became too much for her. She died 5 years from when I first met her, about 6 weeks before her daughter finished school. To me, that was a miracle. Mary had been raised from near death to spending years with her family that they did not expect. So I believe in miracles.
Prayer and faith can help when we are hoping for a miracle. There is an old Jewish legend that when Moses threw his wand into the Red Sea, the expected miracle of the sea parting did not happen immediately. The waves only receded when the first man jumped into the sea.
I will finish with a little story, from ‘Complete Quotes and Anecdotes’ by Tony Castle. A teacher asked her class if they could name the Seven Wonders of the World. Some children mentioned the Pyramids of Egypt, some the Great Wall of China, or other great man-made structures. Noticing that one girl had not been paying attention, the teacher asked her what she thought were the seven great wonders of the world. After hesitating for a little while, the girl replied: “I think they are:
What a perceptive child. So, there are seven miracles that we can all believe in!