The concept of miracles intrigues me, theologically speaking. Some scholars spend a lot of time trying to ‘explain’ the miracles described in the bible–on the assumption that something observable happened, historically speaking, but that there must have been a materially comprehensible mechanism that was merely attributed to Christ (I’m not the biggest fan of South Park, but damn do I love the satire of this in the Jesus v. David Blaine episode).
One example is the suggestion that when Jesus fed the 5000 (plus the women and children, because they weren’t counted) with just 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 13-21), what had actually happened is that people in the crowd initially said they had only this small amount, but when they were asked again by the disciples, each of them found some additional small amount to contribute, leading ultimately to an abundance. Leaving aside questions of historiography and scientific causality in order to assume the truth of this idea for a moment, I would ask why that ‘explanation’ is seen by some as reductive/dismissive. If, for any reason and by nearly any means, a group of more than 5000 people were convinced to quietly, humbly and generously offer what each of them had for redistribution, and the entire crowd were fed to satisfaction, I would certainly be extremely moved and see a great force at work in that event.
In my spirituality, the historical ‘truth’ of an event is much less important than the moral, metaphysical, underlying ‘truth’ it communicates, especially when it comes to the miracles. I won’t go so heretically far as to say that I see the events of Jesus’ life as described in the bible as purely metaphorical, but I do think that their ‘meaning’ in contemporary life comes from more from the symbolic than from the literal truths.
I was struck yesterday by a symbolic element of this particular miracle that had never really hit me before. Often, when we do small, nice things for others, the impact that they have on those individuals is exponentially greater than the sacrifice they cost us. Giving an hour of one’s time and energy to cook dinner for an overwhelmed single mother may resonate with her for a week. To me, that’s a gift from God, taking the small offerings and turning them into something much larger, much more powerful. Something changed between the action and the reaction, the gift grew between giver and recipient.
Just 5 loaves and 2 fish are expanded into something much more sustaining. That symbolic point underlying the story awakens a level of gratitude in me now, for the ways my own small actions can be transformed, and for the way the smallest actions of others have been sustaining me. If the story were merely literal, it would be just a neat parlour trick, perhaps a bit of magic, the specifics of which are irrelevant, included in the gospels to add to the affirmations of Jesus’ divinity (figuring out the mechanism behind it would also matter, since the David Blaine-style illusionist explanations would, in fact, reduce it to propaganda or rhetoric). As I see it today, it’s miraculous.