“When she saw where the soldiers had driven them, she cried out to the mountain: ‘O mountain of God, receive a mother with her child!’, and the rock opened and hid the mother and child inside itself.”
From The Prologue from Ochrid – Sept. 5, the feast day of the Holy Prophet Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist
(Having celebrated the conception of St. John the Baptist just a couple of Sundays ago (September 23) I was reminded of this meditation written for the 10/03 newsletter. I thought I’d share it here again….)
Miracles! Why are they sometimes so hard to believe? Or maybe the question should be, “Why are some miracles simple to believe while others are simply unbelievable?” True, there are several different levels of stories and miracles reported in the lives of the saints, from the historically accurate to what some call “legend.” For example there is a “legend” reported in the life of our holy patron, St. Ignatius of Antioch. The story of his martyrdom concludes with the Christians of Rome entering the coliseum when the lions had finished with the holy bishop to “gather up the heartier pieces” of his remains for proper burial. Legend tells us that as his heart lay open on the ground the Christians discovered the letters IC XC (Jesus Christ) written in gold inside his heart. Another legend, though much more historically feasible, tells us that when St. Ignatius was a young child he was the child whom Jesus “took… and put in the midst of [the disciples]” (Mark 9:36). Maybe some of you have noticed that the Church has assigned this Scripture passage to be read on the feast day of St. Ignatius.
I was intrigued by the question of miracles when I read the story of the Holy Prophet Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist, from the September Prologue:
“… and Zacharias was made dumb from that moment, and did not speak until his son was born and he had written on a tablet: 'His name is John.' Then his mouth was opened, and he glorified God. Later, when the Lord Christ was born and Herod began killing the children in Bethlehem, he sent men to find Zacharias's son and kill him, for he had heard of all that had happened to Zacharias and how John was born. Seeing the soldiers, Elisabeth took John in her arms – he was eighteen months old at that time – and fled from the house with him to a rocky and desert region. When she saw where the soldiers had driven them, she cried out to the mountain: 'O mountain of God, receive a mother with her child!', and the rock opened and hid the mother and child inside itself. Herod, furious that John had not been killed, ordered that Zacharias be cut down before the altar. Zacharias's blood spilled over the marble and became as hard as stone, remaining thus as a witness to Herod's wickedness. At the place where Elisabeth hid with John, a cave opened and a spring flowed forth, and a fruit-bearing palm grew up by God's power. Forty days after Zacharias's death, blessed Elisabeth also entered into rest. The child John stayed in the wilderness, fed by an angel and guarded by God's providence, until that day when he appeared by the Jordan.”
As I read this story I could not help but think about conversations I’ve had, especially with inquirers and converts to Orthodoxy, regarding the believability of such events. I know that the part about Zacharias not speaking would be believable because it is “in the Bible.” Maybe with some biblical awareness one might know that the Zacharias Jesus referred to in Matthew 23:35 was Zacharias, the father of St. John. However, I can just hear the questions about the rock opening and the commonly held Orthodox tradition that St. John was raised in the wilderness and fed by an angel from about the age of two.
There are countless examples of such miracles throughout the history of the Church. The question raised then is which ones do we “have to believe?” My answer would be that no one is forcing anyone to believe anything specific about the life of a saint and that if someone refuses to believe certain things it is up to their conscience. I would only caution such doubt because of what it does to nurture the passions of prideful opinion and self-reliance. When I let myself doubt one thing, soon it can lead to another, and another, and another; and pretty soon we are questioning the Incarnation of God and the Virgin birth of Jesus, or the validity of Holy Communion and the surety of the Resurrection, or the need for the Church to guide our Christian faith. One need not look far to see these doubts existing not only in secular atheistic circles but in some “Christian” circles as well!
As Orthodox Christians we are challenged by historical traditions which include embellished stories of many holy heroes from the past. A grain of salt is very tiny but maybe with judicious and spiritually mature usage we can bypass the temptation to doubt and leave ourselves open not only to the possibility that such things did happen in the lives of St. Ignatius, St. John and countless others, but also to the possibility that miracles of many kinds are happening right now in the unfolding of our own lives. Who knows, maybe one day someone will write an unbelievable story about the faith and life of one of us?