Today, Palm Sunday, and throughout the rest of Holy Week, we devote ourselves to the central mysteries of our faith as Christians: Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Last Supper, which instituted for us the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The suffering and death of Christ on the cross. His resurrection on the third day.
These miracles are the very center of our faith. As Saint Paul said, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain. Or to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor’s use of rather more modern parlance, “If it isn’t true, to hell with it.”
This central miracle, Christ’s death and resurrection, is the miracle which gives our faith meaning and sets it radically apart from the “he was a good man killed by the authorities for standing up for the poor” substitute which some propose. For if Christ was not God, if He did not rise from the dead, if He did not offer to us eternal salvation, then “he was a good man” is no half-way-there substitute. The resurrection is a miracle so unlikely, so scandalous that we must either embrace it wholly or reject Christianity with scorn. The events of Holy Week are not something we can accept half-way, and by accepting them we accept something which goes utterly and completely beyond the natural and predictable world. A miracle.
Given how central this acceptance of the miraculous is to our faith as Christians, I am unsure why it is that people seem at times to choke at Christ’s other miracles as related in the Gospels. In recent decades, one can hardly make it through parish religious education without hearing inventive explanations of how Lazarus had in fact been in a coma but not dead, the miracle of the loaves and fishes was primarily that everyone shared what they had, Christ did not really cast out demons because of course there are no demons, etc.
Why, I find myself wondering, strain at these gnats when if we are to be Christian at all we have already swallowed the camel of Christ’s divinity, incarnation, death, and resurrection? I’m far from being one of those who tends to see the miraculous in everything. I’m intensely skeptical of visions, private revelations, and the like, and I am perhaps more likely than many Christians to chalk events up to coincidence rather than the granting of prayers. But when we’re talking about the life of Christ, another dynamic seems to come into play. If we once accept that Christ was in fact God incarnate, is it so very unlikely that he could feed five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, or that he could raise a man from the dead? It is not as if we have other differing accounts or witnesses suggesting some other interpretation.
Surely, it is not normal for people to be brought back to life or for large crowds to be miraculously fed, but then, it’s not normal for God to become man and walk among us either. On what particular authority do we accept the testimony of the gospels over the one issue and but reject it on the other? Or is there some fig leaf of rationality that people reach for in saying, “Well, of course, I think many of those stories had a perfectly natural explanation.”
In every day life, I am well aware of what the possible explanations for an event might be. It could be that Saint Anthony put a set of car keys on the dresser, or it could be that I put them there myself when unloading my pockets the night before. Asked to judge, I’ll tend to assume the less miraculous explanation. But when reading the gospels, we do not know the surrounding circumstances. Reading in some other explanation (“The apostles had never seen someone tread water before, so when they saw Jesus doing it, they thought that he was walking on water and assumed it was a miracle.”) involves making up circumstances which seem more to fit with out ideas of the normal. And this in the face of the fact that the gospels are written specifically to chronicle that which is not normal: Christ’s life on earth.
While not advocating biblical literalism by any stretch (I would imagine that my chosen cognomen illustrates my divergence from that approach on at least one topic) it seems clear that the gospels often explicitly claim to describe miraculous events performed by Christ, and if Christ is who we believe Him to be, it is hard for me to understand how the simple objection of “we know that doesn’t normally happen” is enough evidence for re-forming the narrative to one’s own taste. Indeed, if one accepts the central tenets of Christianity, to revise the gospel accounts of Christ’s actions without some additional source of evidence seems less rational rather than more so.