My second-most-read post of all time is “Myrrh, Mercy and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All.” These are not high numbers that I am talking about. My most read post has 352 views to date: “Response to Walter Wink’s Book Naming the Powers.” However, at 348 views to date, “Myrrh, Mercy and Oil” is likely to take first place soon because its views have collected at a slow but steady rate over time whereas almost all the views of my “Response to Walter Wink’s Book” were shortly after I posted and shared it (a while after the post on myrrh and mercy). In the last 90 days, for example, 42 people have viewed my post on myrrh and mercy whereas only 8 have viewed my response to Walter Wink.
Because there seems to be some small lasting value to my post on myrrh and mercy, I’ve decided to add this mini update.
One or two weeks ago, my priest, Father Peter Pier, told our congregation a story that he had been told by his bishop many years ago not to share with his congregation. In his sermon, Fr. Peter was talking about miracles and making the overall point that all of us should feel close to miracles, should know ourselves to be wonder workers. He pointed out that even those of us who have seen and believed in one or more miracles do not tend to think of them as something close to us, something that is a normal part of our lives, something that we do.
Fr. Peter’s story was this. Over a decade ago, he noticed an icon in our church streaming myrrh. He smelled it and wiped it off carefully and noticed it again the next time he was in the church. At that point, he decided to call his bishop and let him know. (this was Bishop Antoun serving Metropolitan Philip, both of blessed memory). Bishop Antoun responded that Fr. Peter was one of about seven priests who had called that same week to report a myrrh-streaming icon. Fr. Peter was instructed not speak to anyone about this within his congregation unless the myrrh-streaming became so visible that multiple people began to comment and ask about it. Therefore, Fr. Peter never said a word about this event to anyone until this recent sermon, even though more than one other icon within our church streamed myrrh again during the intervening years.
Our priest shared that this directive not to speak about myrrh-streaming icons came from Metropolitan Philip to all of his bishops and priests because he did not want congregations to be distracted from the primary and normal means of grace: the eucharist offered at every divine liturgy. As we are nourished regularly with the body and blood of our God, Savior, brother, and friend Jesus Christ, we should give thanks in our hearts primarily for this, and we are likely to be excited and distracted by reports of special events and signs of God’s mercy and love.
Fr. Peter’s primary point in telling this story was that we all work this wonderful act of God weekly (at least). He wanted us all to consider ourselves close to the powerful works of God and to know that we participate regularly in the working of wonders. When we say “Amen, Amen, Amen” during each divine liturgy, we are enacting a miraculous wonder. The occasion of this sermon was the Sunday on which we have the epistle reading about Peter raising Tabitha from the dead. Elizabeth and I named our last child Tabitha two years ago, and she is also a daily means of God’s kind and loving work within our lives.
I suppose Metropolitan Philip’s point about distraction is confirmed by the fact that I am not likely to blog about the eucharist very often or that such posts would not likely be read and pass around by many people. Apparently, we want the unusual far more than we want the wonderful.
One other point that I take from this story is the place of trust or witness in the function of miracles within the life of God’s people. There seems to be some basic reason why what we think of as miracles never lend themselves to scientific replication and verification. I’m not going to try and figure this out fully here. Miracles do hold up under careful rational scrutiny, but they are not replicable, verifiable, or falsifiable in the ways that our modern preferences demand. Most of us today place far more value on the replicability of an event than we do on the character of the person bearing witness to the event. I have every reason to believe the story that my priest, Fr. Peter, told about various icons in our church streaming myrrh over the years. This is because I’ve come to know Fr. Peter well in recent years as a very normal, humble, and loving man with great integrity. However, this kind of testimony will mean very little to anyone reading this who has not gotten to know me or my priest. This is one of the values that we have lost as a result of our increased mobility and lack of intergenerational community within modern society. We no longer have a lot of deep and long-standing relationships in which the testimony of one good person about something that happened over a decade ago might be highly persuasive and meaningful to many others around them. Sadly, this is a large part of the reason why so many do not find the case for the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ to be very persuasive in our day.
This is the point that C.S. Lewis is making he has the Professor say to Peter and Susan that “a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed” (in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Lewis is pointing out that we are no longer able to fully understand the seriousness and the value of testimony to truth that is based simply on someone’s character and reliability. Finally, I suppose that the directive from Metropolitan Philip to his priests (not to talk about myrrh streaming icons without good cause) lines up remarkably well with the last point that the Professor makes to Peter and Susan: “There is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying. …We might all try minding our own business.”