It’s a big weekend at the parish, with lots going on. On Friday we had the 4th grade come over to tour the churchyard, and now we’ve got the Flower Sale and the Street Fair and First Holy Communion, and lucky for us, it’s only approaching 100 degrees.
As befits a day on which several of our young people will receive the Blessed Sacrament for the first time, our Collect of the Day praises our God, who has prepared for those who love Him such good things as pass man’s understanding. Last night I struggled, as usual, to explain the ins and outs of the practical and theological surrounding the Blessed Sacrament, because, well, how can one adequately explain what one cannot possibly understand? Hey kids, a low-key miracle will happen tomorrow; so anyway, this is what a chalice looks like.
Miracles are tough to take in. Take today’s episode from Acts. Paul and Barnabas were on their evangelistic travels, and they entered the city of Lystra, pretty much in the middle of what is now Turkey. Lystra was a center of learning and trade, a cosmopolitan city with huge temples to the gods but apparently no synagogue, though many Jews lived there. Paul, along with Barnabas and others visited Lystra more than once and set up a church there. Paul was relatively successful in Lystra, though the next day they did stone him and leave him for dead (he didn’t die, and he kept coming back).
Anyway, Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas notice that a crippled man had noticed them, and that he was listening intently to the sermons and teaching of Paul. And so Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked.
This miracle was met with joy if no small amount of confusion. As one might predict in a city dominated by pagan temples, the people were convinced that Zeus and Hermes had come down to earth. (As an aside, I knew a guy who had two pit bulls named Zeus and Hermes, which is pretty cool). The priest of Zeus pulls out all the stops and a bull, because one can’t overestimate the importance of making a big deal about Zeus and Hermes. That’s because Ovid, the Roman poet, related a legend of a previous visitation by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian region. They came in human form and inquired at one thousand homes, but none showed them hospitality. Only a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, took them in. The pair were rewarded by being spared when the gods flooded the valley and destroyed its inhabitants. The couple’s shack was transformed into a marble-pillared, gold-roofed temple, and they became its priests. If that pagan priest had another bull handy, surely there would have been two bulls sacrificed that day.
But Paul managed to corral the crowd (see what I did there) and stop them from worshiping him and Barnabas, though just barely. He proceeded to use the miracle itself and even the pagan surroundings to preach the true and living God, the God who granted the miracle to begin with.
Every Sacrament of the Church is a small miracle, each effecting what they signify for the glory of God and the good of His people. In Baptism, the soul is washed clean and new life given; in Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is granted fully by the hands of a bishop; in Reconciliation, sins are wiped out, the sinner assured of forgiveness; Holy Unction heals the spirit and frees the body; Holy Matrimony makes one flesh out of two persons; Ordination effects ontological change – the deacon, priest, or bishop is endued with the grace of not being the same person he or she was before; and in the Eucharist, the miracle of miracles, Christ Himself is made present to us in His Body and Blood.
Miracles, by their very nature, can be misunderstood, ill-perceived or not perceived at all, or, at times, taken almost for granted. That’s the true purpose of this rite we go through each year; it’s not that I can somehow “admit” a baptized person to Holy Communion, but rather that in learning to perceive Jesus in the Sacrament, learning to perceive the miracle happening right in front of us, we can take part not in confusion or apathy, but in praise of our God who has prepared for those who love Him such good things as pass our understanding.