Have you heard? Miracles have been happening at St. John’s! People have been talking.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, since the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church itself is a miracle, as our reading from the Acts of the Apostles makes clear. At Pentecost, which we celebrate today, the Church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit. The miracle of the Tongues of Fire at Pentecost grabs peoples’ attention, and it gets us talking, in many languages, and in all sorts of ways.
One of the more wondrous attention-grabbing things people have been talking about here of late is that a devout Roman Catholic named Daryl Gonyon, who comes to St. John’s every week to walk the Stations of the Cross, contacted the media, alerting them to a mysterious red substance at the 12th Station, the one depicting the Crucifixion. A streak of red appears to flow directly from Jesus’ bleeding feet onto the wall below. When this fact was brought to my attention, I asked around, and was told by longstanding parishioners that, indeed, this phenomenon had been happening for years. When washed away, it came back. Some people, like Daryl, find this phenomenon inspiring and moving, and are inclined to call it miraculous. Others don’t put any stock in it. Some, I’m sure, scoff.
For myself, I find that in leading the Stations of the Cross, (as I will be doing this coming Friday at Noon), when I get to the 12th Station, I can’t help but contemplate the meaning of the mysterious red mark below it. I stop, look, pray, and listen. And when I do, what I always hear is, “Pay attention. I am here.” Jesus is here. Christ is present at St. John’s.
But is this a miracle? I spent some time over the past few weeks looking at various definitions of “miracle,” and came across two pretty good ones: The first is “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” The second is “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.”
We do not know whether the 12th Station qualifies under the first definition, because we have not even attempted to explain it “by natural or scientific laws.” I, for one, will not claim the authority to declare that this is a miracle in the first sense. But no one could deny that a bleeding image of the Crucifixion—here in Newport, Rhode Island, of all places—is “a highly improbable or extraordinary event.” The question, in my mind, is: Will this event bring “very welcome consequences?”
Perhaps even more importantly, what would those “very welcome consequences” be? I’m not about to put up velvet ropes and sell tickets. But should we aspire to be a place of pilgrimage? Well, yes, if by “pilgrimage” we mean a place where people come to seek and to find the presence of God. In that sense, we already are a place of pilgrimage.
The doors of this church are open every day, after all. Anyone can wander in off the street to pray, to gawk, to explore, to rest, or simply to be in this sacred space. Of course, there is always a certain danger in being open, as you can imagine, which is why I ask that you join me in praying every day for God’s protection of this sacred space. But I think the value of being open outweighs the danger of closing ourselves off to the world. Time and again, I hear how wonderful it is that we keep our doors unlocked during the day. Much of our lifeblood as a community flows from the fact that we are known in this neighborhood and beyond as a church that keeps its doors open. In so doing, we welcome not just the bay breezes but all sorts and conditions of humanity, and most importantly, we welcome the Spirit of Christ Jesus himself, who occasionally sends people to us who see things that challenge us to see Christ here in new and surprising ways. When we do see Christ in new and surprising ways, this has, God willing, “very welcome consequences.”
Still, we do not know all the consequences that might flow from paying attention to a red streak on a wall. We may not even believe there ought to be any consequences, welcome or not. But since someone has pointed it out, we are forced to ask two questions: “What is it?” and “What does it mean?” Frankly, I do not have the expertise to answer the question of what it is with any incontrovertible authority. But as your priest, I do have the responsibility to suggest what it means. Or at least, what it might mean to those of us who look at it with the eyes of faith.
The eyes of faith are not unscientific eyes, I hasten to add. They are simply attuned to those aspects of human experience that, whether within the capacity of scientific explanation or not, are at the heart of what it means to be human in the first place: a sense of mystery.
Now by “mystery,” I do not mean an Agatha Christie whodunit novel. I’m not talking about a problem to be solved, but something that runs alongside of that, sometimes in tension with it, sometimes not. “Mystery” in this sense is best defined as a reality that can only be understood insofar as one participates in it. The quintessential mystery, common to all human beings, is the mystery of life itself. As the philosopher Kierkegaard famously put it, life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. Love is another example. You can only understand the mystery of love if you participate in it—if you love others and allow yourself to be loved.
All good mysteries, whether of the 12th Station variety or of the Tongues of Fire variety, call us to participate in something larger, and deeper, and broader, and higher than ourselves. Mysteries pull us inward and push us outward. An awareness of mystery connects us to each other and to God in ways that ordinary life tends not to. Not that ordinary life can’t. It’s just that we let the business of life distract us from the business of living. In fact, until we can approach the mystery of our lives with the same sort of curiosity, wonder, awe, and reverence with which we approach the sacred, we need miracles, both large and small, to remind us that there is something about life itself that defies explanation, and that calls us to deeper relationship with each other. The Gospel teaches us that deeper relationship with each other is found in relationship with Jesus Christ. The Church has always called people into relationship with Jesus Christ by inviting them to be baptized. In many other churches today, candidates for Baptism will be presented following the sermon. I regret that we have no one to baptize today—maybe next year—but those of us who have been baptized will renew our own Baptismal Covenant in just a couple of minutes.
Just in case you haven’t been baptized, or are unfamiliar with this particular Christian tradition, or might appreciate a bit of a refresher, a note on what we are about to do is in order: Just as that red streak over there invites us to confront the claim that Jesus Christ is present in the here and now, right here and right now, our Baptismal Covenant and the sprinkling of water that follows it invites us to confront the claims that the Church has made on us. In Baptism, we “are sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” In Baptism, we are received “into the household of God” and commissioned to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share…in his eternal priesthood.” If you haven’t been baptized, that’s the big miracle waiting to happen. And if you have been baptized, the Church is the miracle that Pentecost made possible. All miracles, great and small, flow from Christ’s blood on the cross into the waters of Baptism, as we are buried with Christ in his death and raised with him to newness of life, mysteriously incorporated into the Body of Christ and made members of the Church. When we live into that miracle of miracles, we find “very welcome consequences” indeed. We find new life.
If you haven’t found that new life through Baptism, I invite you this morning to have a conversation with me. And if you have been baptized but somehow have lost touch, or never really gotten in touch with the mystery of that miracle, then today, on this birthday of the Church, you have an opportunity to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as you renew your baptismal covenant. All are welcome at the Stations of the Cross on Friday at Noon. Deacon Close and I are available during the week. If you’re looking for a miracle, you’ve come to the right place. As both the 12th Station and the Tongues of Fire attest, at St. John’s, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is present, and St. John’s is ready for you.