Irreverence was the coin of the Monty Python realm. Everything was fair game, including all of the world’s religions. Sometimes their irreverence went far beyond the boundaries of good taste. At other times, as the British might say, they were “spot on.” I am convinced that if Jesus and John the Baptist came back now, they would be fans of the Flying Circus. How can I be so sure? First of all, they shared a “Y” chromosome. Every male I have ever met can’t resist the temptation to monologue Monty Python movie lines, often in unison. Can you imagine those two riffing, “What is the airspeed velocity of a swallow?”….” etc…. Secondly, Monty Python lampooned the very things that our Lord and his cousin decried during their stay on earth: especially hypocrisy in the name of religion.
One of the things those old movies pointed to, was the religious man and woman’s tendency to get caught up in the big, the bold, the gaudy, and miraculous, while forsaking the things that matter. In the course of my life, I have discovered something of this tendency within myself. I know that the indwelling spirit occupies an important room in the inner-castle of my heart, but right next to that room, there is another room inhabited by a Monty Python character who prays the equivalent of an old movie line, “Jesus, prove to me that you’re divine, change my water into wine.”
Let me show you what I mean. Three decades ago, I was fortunate enough to take Saint Ignatius’ “Thirty Day Exercises.” In the midst of that marathon silent retreat, I sat outside one evening enjoying the scenery. In the foreground was a statue of the Risen Lord. His face and right hand, were stretched heaven-ward. The backdrop for this artwork was a stunning view of the Colorado Rockies. Prior to my prayer-time, a brief summer shower had just washed over us, leaving the air scented with the sage that covered the valley floor. Some combination of the pervasive silence, the amazing setting, and the particular scripture I was praying, opened me to the unmistakable truth that God’s care for me was very personal, devoted, and tender. In that moment, I remember praying out loud, “God, you’re going to have to make this really obvious, because I’m not so good at digesting information like this.” At that moment, a rainbow sprouted in the sky in a way that made it appear to be coming directly from the outstretched finger-tips of the risen Lord. After my initial loud and irreverent reaction, I looked around sheepishly, and reminded myself that I was on a silent retreat. I must have written ten pages in my prayer journal that night!
The next morning, I couldn’t wait to tell my spiritual director! I’ll never forget what he said, “And you want to know what the real miracle was?” I responded, “I know what it was! A rainbow sprouted like a magician’s bouquet of flowers from a statue’s fingers!” “No” he said. “The real miracle was the desire in your heart, and the willingness to hear God speaking through the rainbow.”
At first, I have to admit, I was a little crest-fallen, but the lesson from that event has never left me. Over and over again, scripture recorded Jesus admonishing his followers to quit acting like Monty Python characters. Quit chasing after miracles. The real miracle is that divinity broke into our humanity, and now, humanity contains and expresses the divine. The fruit of this in-breaking is an unlimited desire for God and the things of God’s kingdom: Truth, Beauty, Love, Goodness. There is nothing more miraculous than the intimacy with God that is now available to us, and the everyday expressions of that intimacy in our midst.
So if we aren’t supposed to chase after miracles Monty Python style, what about this Sunday’s Gospel where Jesus performed one of his most amazing miracles by raising a widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7: 11-17)? If the Buddha had been standing nearby, he might have argued with Jesus, “Why did you perform that miracle? Aren’t you afraid that you will get your followers’ hopes up? Death and suffering will inevitably visit all of their lives? You raised this woman’s son, but what about all of those parents in the audience whose sons and daughters you did not raise in those days before medicine’s miracles?” A similar question may show up for someone reading this passage whose child, or husband was not healed despite many sincerely uttered prayers.
It seems to me that this scripture can only be understood within the context of other scriptures. Over and over again, John’s Gospel bids us to “abide with Christ,” “remain in Christ,” “Make our home in Christ.” In other words, we are to contemplate his life, spend time in prayer with him, immerse ourselves in sacred community, serve with love, blend his life with our life in the Eucharist. Our spiritual conviction: we will be transformed from the inside out through consuming Christ on a regular basis. In light of that conviction, this week’s miracle story can be viewed as a window into the heart of God. When Christ saw a widow who had just lost her beloved, and the only means of supporting herself, his instinct was not to sit down and philosophically plot things out. His instinct was to act. Hang out with Christ long enough, and you will have instincts like that.
In this Gospel story, we see a picture of who we are to become. In this world, each and every one of us can acknowledge that there is a kind of brutality that somehow found its way into creation. To paraphrase a 1980’s bumper sticker, “Suffering Happens.”
Through abiding with Christ, one-day-at-a-time, we miraculously absorb Christ’s instincts to step into life’s suffering…to mend what has been torn, to tend to life’s wounds. The real miracle, for those with eyes to see, is that we become the healing presence of Christ in this world. Rather than taking a step back into safety and security, we step forward with an immeasurable reservoir of courageous love, truth, beauty and goodness.