THE THIRD MIRACLE
Rev, Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
December 16, 2018
Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55
In the film The Third Miracle, Ed Harris plays Father Frank Shore, a down and out priest without a parish who is suffering a crisis of faith. Having de-stroyed the faith of many by his role as a “miracle killer, church authorities call on him again to explore the claimed miracles associated with a deceased Slovakian immigrant who, among other things, did not lead what some religious people would consider a traditionally saintly life.
The Roman Catholic Church has a process of investigation for the process called beatification and canonization of saints. The investigator is called a postulator and is supposed to examine the veracity of claimed miracles. As a postulator Father Frank has destroyed the faith of many people, including his own. And now he is asked to look into a statue of the Virgin in the Chicago schoolyard where the Slovakian woman worked.
Based on the novel of the same name by Richard Vetere, a novelist and playwright on the New York scene, the film beautifully directed by Agnieszka Holland, pits the aging Cardinal Werner, who as a young German soldier in Brystrica, Slovakia, did indeed witness a real miracle, which forms the basis of this movie, exploring questions of faith and belief.
What is a miracle and how do we define it? How can we who are twenty-first skeptical Americans be-lieve in stories of bleeding statues, saints talking to a young girl in the French countryside, or a virgin birth? Martin Luther, who did believe in the literal story of the virgin birth once quipped that there were three miracles of the Incarnation: First that God loved us enough to devise a plan of salvation; second, that God chose this particular ways to save humankind from sin; but, third, and the greatest miracle of all, that Mary believed the angel.
We may smile at such a statement but we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Looking beyond our understanding of scholarship and theological import, we need to ask ourselves what are the real miracles, those events in our lives that defy rational explanations? And perhaps we should con-sider how we can participate in creating miracles of love and justice.
Our reading from the Gospel this morning gives us some clues as to how we can and should parti-cipate in the miracle of justice. Is a miracle an event that cannot be merely explained by natural causes but only attributed to something supernatural, beyond our comprehension as human beings, or is a miracle an event or a process in which we, as human beings, can share in its creation? In her song, known as the Magnificat, Mary sings of a miracle, namely, that the existing structure of the world as it existed at that time should radically change: that the rich have been thrown down from their thrones and the poor have been fed. The real miracle here is the total inversion of the social order as it existed then and still exists today.
For many, and not just in the Third World, this is the real miracle, for the poor of this world have always understood that power rules their lives and that they really have no say in creating their futures. The real miracle in this song of praise to God for ful-filling the promise of inverting the social order is that it will not be done by the sword but that it will be done through the love and mercy of God
And, just as church authorities in the film op-posed the real miracle of life over death, so too, will the powers and principalities, as Paul described them, oppose our attempts to create justice and mercy without violence and death. We witness such events every day when something inexplicable and totally unexpected happens in someone’s life, calling them miracles. A man convicted of rape and murder is exonerated by DNA evidence and is given a chance to build a new life. A woman, beaten down by abuse and violence, is able to gain asylum here in the United States for her and her children. A family from Syria whose lives have been destroyed by a brutal dictator and his war finds hope in being admitted as refugees.
Although each of these events and thousands more involved human action, it is the combination of circumstances that leads us to call such events miracles. For the prisoner who has experienced the loss of his freedom for a crime he did not commit, why was his case the one selected by the Innocence Project and not the case of another? For the woman who has pled and won her case before an immi-gration judge, was it only sheer luck that she was represented by a nonprofit service? For the refugee family who had languished in a UN camp for two years, how was it that they and not someone else were admitted as refugees?
Each of these and so many more involve the many factors that came together at just the right moment that it certainly seems as if some form of divine intervention was involved. And each of these cases and so many thousands more attribute their changed circumstances to such intervention because the persons who assisted them worked as servants of God––whether they would use that language or not––to radically alter their lives.
For it as servants of God, the God of justice and mercy, that we are able to participate in the miracle of radical transformation reflected in the Magnificat. We become instruments of God’s grace, which indeed is miraculous, for without such grace we would not be able to do more than merely despair.
In the film, Father Frank is tempted by his own desires as he meets the earthy daughter of the deceased Slovakian immigrant, a non-believer who resents her mother for having her and then aban-doning her at the age of 16. He then remembers who he is and what he is supposed to be and backs off. The following day standing in front of the Virgin’s statue in the schoolyard, Father Frank is decides that he will advocate for her beatification and canon-ization.
In the final meeting with the committee of priests and bishops, Father Frank speaks in support of sainthood. The Bishop caustically notes that there are almost a billion Catholics in the world and everyone would love to have a saint in their backyard. Frank’s response is that the Church was built on miracles such as loaves and fishes, not to mention the Resurrection.
“That was nearly two thousand years ago,” replies one Bishop, “and we’ve been struggling to get out of the dark ages ever since.” But Father Frank will not be dissuaded and in the final meeting the aging Cardinal Werner realizes that the miracle he witness-ed was the result of the young girl Helen as she prayed to the Virgin. As a result of that miracle, he lived.
We do not need to believe in bleeding statues or voices to a young girl in the French countryside to believe in miracles. There are events we cannot ex-plain even to our so-called rational selves. What really matters is that we accept those events as signs of grace in our lives. The events may be far from super-natural but they are monumental in our lives; that is what makes them miracles.
For some it is remission from a disease that kills; for others it is the sign of love one gives another at one’s death. For others it is a new life in a new country after brutalization by powers bent on creating death and destruction. There is also the possibility of redemption and forgiveness, not something we usually think of as a miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.
We don’t need to be caught up in specifics of how a young woman called a virgin could conceive a child. The story of the Virgin Birth was told to explain how God’s grace could be visited on human beings. Yes, there was a time when people literally believed such stories. But as Father Frank reminded the Bishop, the––our faith––is founded on miracles.
The ultimate miracle, however, does not need to be tied to this specific story as related by the writer of Luke’s Gospel. The ultimate miracle is the fact that we can reflect God’s grace and passion for justice and mercy through our own actions creating a realm of peace, justice and mercy. We do so through the strength God gives us through faith.
There are indeed three miracles of the Incarn-ation: that God loves and cares for us; that God’s love is reflected through the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas; and that we believe the message of which Mary sings: that through God’s mercy and grace we can transform the world into one of justice and peace.
Let us pray: In this season of Advent, as we await the One who comes to us in the form of a help-less babe, help us to be transformed into builders of your realm of justice and peace as Jesus of Nazareth called us to be. We ask this in the name of him who came to show us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.