The season of miracles

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Now that Christmas is over, let's talk about miracles.

Miracles have been on my mind since last week when I heard the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk-Algonquin woman whom the Vatican plans to canonize. The miracle that sealed her canonization was 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner's 2006 recovery from the flesh-eating bacterium Strep A. His chest, neck, face, and scalp were infected, but a Blessed Kateri relic and prayers to the long-dead woman supposedly halted the progress of the infection before it reached his eyes, brain, or heart.

Jake's recovery is wonderful, perhaps even remarkable, but is it a miracle? We tend to use the word miracle in two different senses without always making much of a distinction between them. StKateriTekakwitha.jpg Sometimes we mean an occurrence has come to pass that was simply quite unlikely. In this case, miracle is nothing more than a hyperbolic turn of phrase. But often we mean an occurrence that could only have come to pass through some kind of supernatural or divine intervention.

The miraculous waters are only muddied by the frequency with which the word gets tossed around in the news. A game-winning three-point shot from half-court at the buzzer and other impressive athletic feats get the same tag as the 10-year-old Dutch boy who survives a plane crash that kills all 103 other people on board.

But are any of these occurrences more than rhetorical miracles? We know that, under the right circumstances, some people can survive plane crashes. We know that, with the right combination of skill, training, and luck, improbable last-minute field goals can happen. We know that internal diseases can be halted or cured, even if we don't always understand the precise mechanisms that bring this about. These and other seeimingly remarkable occurrences are things that we learn through our experience in, observation of, and interaction with the world are, in fact, possible.

When we sit at the bedside of a cancer-afflicted loved one and pray for God to send a cure, we know that a cure really is possible. But imagine sitting at the bedside of a loved one whose leg has been severed in an accident. Would any of us pray to God for the leg to regrow or be restored without surgical intervention and seriously expect that prayer to be answered? No, because we know through our experience of the world that limbs do not spontaneously regenerate. We don't even think about the possibility that God would provide such a miracle.

Which is odd. Our expectation of what God can miraculously accomplish is confined entirely to the realm of the possible. What we know is flatly impossible doesn't even enter into our thinking.

A miracle would be 104 out of 104 passengers surviving a horrific plane crash without a scratch. A miracle would be a priest sticking someone's severed leg back to the stump and having it reattach itself. Surely these feats would not be beyond an omnipotent God who traffics in the otherwise impossible. But no, what we consider to be miracles really aren't, and what would be true miracles don't lie within the realms of our expectations or even our imaginations.

Even young Jake Finkbonner, cured by a miraculous relic, seems to have that innate understanding of what is actually possible and what isn't. He says he wants to help other kids when he grows up. Does that mean he wants to be a priest? A saint?

No. He says he wants to be a doctor.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on December 26, 2011 9:21 AM.

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