October 28, 2012
The Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity
Do you believe in miracles?
It seems to happen at least once or twice a year. On an otherwise "slow news day" some media person gets wind of yet another "miracle story" and runs a camera crew out to film the big event. In their most cases these momentarily newsworthy miracles usually take the form of a vision of the divine ... of sorts.
Let's face it, though these are pretty puny epiphanies! The face of Christ miraculously appears in the cracked bathroom window of some rundown house. The image of a descending angel miraculously floats above the landscape scenery of some cheap painting. And of course who can forget the miraculous transformation of a home fried tortilla into an icon by the silhouette of Jesus that emerged upon its surface.
Don't all these "miracles" make you mad? It is utterly unfair that God could appear as a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night to the escaping Israelites, that Jesus could walk on the water and bring a dead man back to life in first-century Palestine, while we here at the beginning of the 21st century are supposed to squint our eyes in order to think we can see a miracle on a piece of fried dough!
Do miracles still happen? Or, as some "cessasionists" claim (those who believe miracles only happened at the time of the beginning of the church just shy of 2,000 years ago), did God stop working through miracles after the apostolic era? This has been one of the biggest and longest-running controversies in the church. For at least five hundred years believers have been asking, "Can God do miracles today?" The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment each added more and more bricks to the walls of reason and logic and quantifiable evidence that the best and brightest were helping to build walls between miracles and our daily lives. But it took the Industrial Era to really start erecting a miracle-proof wall between the ongoing transformative work and presence of God in this world and the "scientific" view of the universe being developed.
As these walls have grown higher and wider, the separation between those who continue to believe in the presence and possibility of miracles and those who utterly deny this kind of experience has become taller and deeper. How ironic, then, that as we move ever deeper into the postmodern era, miracles and discussions of past ones are trying to make a quiet comeback.
Let's take, for example, the great debate over a supposed long ago miracle the virgin birth. Few issues have caused such historic theatrical events. Churches have been split and thousands of books have been written on the possibility or impossibility of a miraculous virgin birth. There have been heresy trials and ruined ministries for the sake of this issue.
The debate often has been ugly and nasty on both sides. Reams of paper and teams of scientists have marched before virgin-birth believers, denouncing the belief in that miracle as anti-science, anti-rational and anti-intellectual. Unfortunately, many of the defenders of the virgin birth miracle considered such designations complimentary. The evangelicals and fundamentalists adhering to the old "not-since-the-apostolic-era" mandate against miracles are just as restrictive and closed-minded as the clinical white-coated skeptics. Why, does it seem that the Catholic Church appears to be the only religion still accepting miracles as real and still taking place in the manner that plays out similar to that in the Scriptures?
So where does this leave us today? Today, we live in a world where science makes it possible for virgin births to happen every day. We call the process "in-vitro fertilization" and the results "test-tube babies." Isn't it rather amusing that those who refused to admit the possibility of God doing a "virgin birth" are in a posture today of watching science do "virgin births" every day? Isn't it rather amusing that those fundamentalists who would refuse to allow God to perform miracles in the dawn of the 21st century, have no problem at all with allowing human scientists to do the same thing? Why is it that science gets all the miracle-making, wonder-working powers, and not God? Why is it we can't say, "God can do anything God wants to do?"
But what constitutes a "miracle" today? Miracles are not divine holograms floating in the sky or bizarre appearances in spaghetti bowls. A miracle is when God makes a way when there seems to be none. God can make a way in our lives when there seems to be no way; we simply need to get back into believing it. Miracles are a sign of God's active partnership with us helping us to deal with the issues, remove the obstacles in our lives and in the life of this world. To put it as Sam Williams, pastor of Van Ness Community Church in Fresno, California, puts it: "God doesn't solve problems for us. God solves problems with us."
In today's gospel reading, the real miracle is the eruption from within the blind Bartimaeus of such a powerful faith that it will neither shut up nor hold still. Recall that in this healing story, Bartimaeus comes to Jesus. Jesus does not approach some sedentary, helpless figure. It is the miracle of faith, a divinely given gift, which makes possible the restoration of Bartimaeus' sight. In the life of the blind roadside beggar, God made a way when there seemed to be no way.
You might be caught up short and stuttering if someone asked you point-blank: "What miracles has God performed in your life?" We haven't been taught to think about events in our lives as "miracles" we have been trained to look for threads of logic and reason and fact to hold the fabric of our lives together. But what if you were asked, "Where has God made a way in your life when there seemed to be no way?"
Some of us experience the miracle of the Eucharist. Some go through the motions and simply give it the reverence due, but nothing further. Why God allows one to experience this miracle fully while hundreds of others to go away simply having faith that what the church teaches on the topic is true without ever really experiencing anything is something we may never know or understand.
A French nun’s healing from Parkinson’s was chosen from among the many reports of grace and alleged miracles that made their way to the Postulator of the Cause for saints. She was there, in the front row at St. Peter’s Square, to give thanks to the new Blessed. The procedure for recognizing the miracle that helped bring Karol Wojtyla onto the altar was not simple, There were concerns raised about the case, but further detailed investigations finally led the medical panel for the Congregation of the Causes of Saints to declare the disease’s remission inexplicable.
Sister Marie Simon Pierre Normand, 52, is part of the congregation of the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood, and works with newborns in a French hospital. “I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in June 2001,” she says. “The illness affected the entire left side of my body. After three years, the symptoms worsened - tremors, stiffness, pain, insomnia...”
Sister Marie followed the ceremonies presided over by John Paul II with apprehension - in the image of a sick and motion-impaired Pope, she saw her own future. Just after the death of Pope John Paul II, her symptoms increased. “From April 2005 I started to get worse every week, more run down day by day, no longer able to write or to drive a car... I was struggling to do my job.” In 13 May of that year, Benedict XVI officially announced a special dispensation to begin the beatification process for John Paul II. “Starting the next day, the sisters of all the French and African communities asked for his intercession to cure me. They prayed incessantly, without tiring...” A few weeks later, on the night between the 2nd and 3rd of June, something happened. Sister Marie awoke suddenly, just before dawn, after many hours of rest.
“My body was no longer stiff as it had been, no rigidity, and inside I’m not the same. Then, I felt an inner call and a strong impulse to go to pray before the Holy Sacrament.” From that moment on, the French nun regained her ability to walk quickly - all her symptoms had disappeared. She immediately stopped taking her medicine. A few days later, the doctors confirmed it. “On 7 June, as I have said before, I went to the neurologist who had been treating me for the past four years. He too was surprised to observe the sudden disappearance of all my symptoms, despite having stopped medical treatment five days before my visit.” Since then, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre has been perfectly healthy.
Let’s move on to a mother who tells this story:
One year ago today I delivered my son, a stillborn. For a moment he was placed in my arms quiet, blue, and limp. The midwife and her assistant then took him from me and began CPR. They could not find a pulse. He did not breathe. Because we were at home (it was my third, planned homebirth) 911 was called.
While CPR was continued and we waited for the ambulance my husband took water and baptized him using the name we had agreed upon, James Fulton. I remember sitting on the floor saying, "Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen" over and over again in my head. I suppose it was as close as I could come to a prayer; I suppose it was my way of asking Archbishop Sheen to intercede for my son.
The paramedics came and rushed James away. In route, as they tried to restart his heart, they gave him two doses of epinephrine by lines in the shin bone. Neither worked and one leaked out, turning his whole right leg - from toe tip to buttock - black and blue and purple. In the ER the doctors and nurses worked on him for another 18 minutes or so. A nurse practitioner told me she wanted James' mother to be able to hold him alive for a little bit. Five minutes, an hour - she just wanted my son to be alive long enough for me to say good-bye.
They did a sonogram of his heart. It fluttered but it didn't beat. A nurse held his foot; she later told me it was cold, like the expression "cold and dead". He was intubated and getting oxygen, but there was no way that the chest compressions were adequately circulating the oxygen to the brain and other organs. Following the orders of the on-call neonatologist they stopped working on him so they could call time of death.
My little boy, James Fulton, 9lbs and 12oz, had been without a pulse for 61 minutes. Everyone stopped working. And then his heart started.
James was admitted to the NICU at the Children's Hospital of Illinois and was immediately "cooled" - a newer type of therapy where they lower the body's temperature by a few degrees in an effort to spare the brain and other organs further and ongoing damage.
For three days he was sedated and shivering, covered in tubes and wires. They thought that he would not live to be a week old. They thought he would have to lose his right leg because of the chemical burn. They thought that if he did live he would be a "vegetable".
They tried to give us hope, but they thought that he would probably spend the rest of his life strapped in a wheelchair, blind, severely mentally disabled, on a ventilator, fed through a feeding tube, in diapers, unable to communicate love.
EEG's showed very abnormal brain activity. An MRI showed that the brain had been injured from the severe lack of oxygen.
At times I wondered if we should have just stayed home and never called 911. I worried that I had become Dr. Frankenstein and had, through other people, manipulated James into life. I worried that he would be treated like a monster.
In the situation we were in I could either worry or I could hope. I could fear or I could trust. We had prayerfully decided to have a homebirth and so I knew that we were following God's plan for our lives. I didn't know where we would end up, but I knew that I could not live in the dark - I had to hope and trust - I had to live in the Light.
So we prayed, and we asked people to pray with us. Two days after his birth 100 people, many I barely knew, came to the Peoria Diocese's cathedral. In the church where Fulton Sheen served Mass and was later ordained, we had a holy hour and Mass.
Friends told James' story on Facebook, in emails, on blogs, and to their prayer groups, prayer chains, Bible studies, family members, and friends. People in Alaska, New York, Mexico, Peru, Germany, Ireland, and Canada prayed for my son, asking for Sheen's intercession. Atheists asked their believing friends to pray for him. Classrooms of children in Catholic schools throughout Illinois recited the Sheen prayer every day. Little children adopted him as their main prayer intention. My dad began attending Mass again on a regular basis.
And God answered the prayers. Jesus Christ healed my son. The Holy Spirit filled the hearts of His faithful. And Sheen continued to evangelize through his namesake and my son. By the time he was a few days old his kidneys, liver, and colon were all working. His leg was healing.
By a week he was breathing without any assistance. His blood pressure was good. He began eating by bottle. He was taken off pain meds and started to interact with me, his visitors, nurses, and doctors. At seven weeks he came home from the hospital.
A follow-up MRI showed no more brain damage. The precautionary g-tube was removed when he was six months old. Now he rolls over, crawls, cruises, and will walk soon. He eats Cheerios, picking them up with his thumb and pointer finger. He squeals with laughter, plays with blocks, steals toys from his older siblings, and has scored in the normal / age appropriate range by his developmental and physical therapist.
My family and I believe that God brought James back from the dead and healed his body. We believe that He did this through the intercession of Archbishop Sheen. We believe that God did this for the same reason that he allowed Lazarus to die: "This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it."
Today my son is one year old. Thank you, Jesus, and Happy Birthday, James Fulton!
These are but two stories that show miracles do indeed still happen today. Yes, it may appear that miracles are something from apostolic times. We do not see them very often. But, in the days of the Apostles, were they seen any more frequently? Maybe by the Apostles and the followers of Jesus who hovered over Him night and day? Remember, Jesus’ ministry was three years long. Reading the Scriptures we come away feeling that there were miracles every few seconds, but that is merely how it appears for the very limited amount of information we have. So, whether miracles are happening at the same frequency as the Apostolic times or not can be left to debate.
Jesus’ ministry, which is captured in the Gospels we have, is but a fraction of His three years of ministering to the people of God. Further, the Gospels we have, based on their condensed form, make it seem like there were miracles every few seconds, when in reality, they may not have been so frequent at all.
However, let me not discount the fact that Jesus did perform many miracles. This is true. My point is simply that when you think of what we know and how long His ministry on earth was, we can gain a perspective and comparison to the miracles we see and hear about today. Do miracles happen less? Has God shelved miracles to the book-shelf under the Apostolic age?
We must keep in mind there are billions more people on earth than when Jesus walked among us as man. Many miracles go unreported. Many more go reported, but the skeptics keep them from spreading. Some are seemingly simple or small in nature and those who are recipient of them feel no need to communicate them. Others still, like the two I relayed here, come to the for-front for all to hear. I see no problem with this. What did Jesus tell many of those who were the recipient of His blessings and miracles? ‘Go, and tell no one of what I have done for you.’
Maybe, just maybe, this is still the case. Regardless, miracles have not been shelved on the bookcase of the past. We simply must have faith that they do indeed still happen. Whether we see them or even experience any in explicit ways does not make them fiction. We have to trust in God’s providence to work the miracles when and where He deems best, always believing in faith. We are not all like the blind man in the gospel reading, but we are loved children of God … a god who does indeed still work miracles in our modern world.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church.
San Diego, Ca.