Michael Lotti is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn. His first novel, St. George and the Dragon, is coming out in March.
Just a few months ago, an icon of Archangel Michael on the island of Rhodes in Greece began weeping. (You can see a video here.) What could this mean?
The meaning of a miracle may seem obvious. Something remarkable happened, and it can only be attributed to God. It’s a miracle! Atheists, take note!
But, in fact, miracles are not self-interpreting. That was the core of Jesus’ response to John the Baptist:
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matt. 11: 2-5)
The miracles, along with the good news being proclaimed to the poor, weren’t just amazing events. They showed that the God of Israel was, at long last, fulfilling his promise to restore Israel – and, indeed, the whole world – to its glory.
John the Evangelist provides a similar (albeit more chilling) lesson after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead:
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him; but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. (John 11: 45-46)
For some, a living Lazarus meant that the God of Israel, through Jesus, was saving his people. For others, he embodied a threat to what the God of Israel had established. Even an act like raising the dead doesn’t make its own meaning obvious.
For the sake of a reasonable word limit, let’s assume that what happened on Rhodes was, indeed, a miracle. To be sure, it’s our job to “test every spirit,” but even a short treatise on discerning miracles in light of modern science is a dissertation-worthy endeavor.
A Divine Response to Something Bad?
So again: what does this miracle mean?
Let’s first note what it doesn’t mean. A “village theology” tradition holds that miracles like this occur when something really bad happens. The problem with this interpretation is that something really bad is always happening, even in the smallest hamlet of rural Greece – if not in body, then in mind or heart.
This is supported by the sheer unpredictability of the many other weeping icons and statues in recent Christian history. In every case, these miracles occur in the midst of the normal hubbub of human life, with its panoply of sin and virtue. Even if we could look into the hearts and minds of the villagers where this latest miraculous icon resides – and let’s never forget that we can’t – it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t find anything unusual (even if a lot was alarming, as sinful human consciousness tends to be).
A Revelation to Venerate
So again, what does this miracle mean?
The first impulse – to simply exclaim “it’s a miracle!” to the world – is partly right. God is revealing himself in a very concrete, simple, and recognizable way. So we should venerate the revelation much like we venerate the Bible, the Eucharist, icons, and other tangible manifestations of the presence of God. As the raising of Lazarus reveals, it is all too easy to view a miracle with hostility, anger, suspicion or – perhaps worst of all – indifference. Veneration re-establishes the fundamental relationship between us and God, fulfilling – to some extent – the commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Venerating a miracle is also a way of acknowledging the importance of its context. A weeping icon is amazing, but it’s obviously not meant to distract attention away from the liturgical, sacramental, and doctrinal life of the Church. If anything, a miracle should amplify the importance of Church practices and teaching, for the God who causes the miracle is also the God who established these as markers of his “new and everlasting covenant” with mankind.
A Character Revelation
We should also consider the form of the miracle. Using his words to John the Baptist again, we can note that by pointing out what he was doing, Jesus was also pointing out the character of the one who does them. He was, essentially, telling John the Baptist that one who heals the sick and preaches good news to the poor – i.e. the God of Israel (especially as described by Isaiah) – was in action.
It is, then, significant that the icon is weeping. The God behind this miracle weeps. His attitude toward the world is, at least in part, one of sadness. Such is the picture of the God of Israel that is revealed over the course of the Old Testament, in Jesus himself, and in church history. In particular, tears are a gift of the Holy Spirit, a kind of sadness and cleansing at the same time.
So the miracle on Rhodes manifests God’s love, compassion, and mercy for the fallen world and his desire to heal it. His love is so great, one could say, that it breaks through His own natural laws to tell the world, yet again, the good news of his healing lordship over a fallen creation.