An Analysis of Miracles (homily)
Thirty First Sunday of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 11:22-12; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
What I really admire about Zacchaeus is his eagerness and his joy and his willingness to climb that tree. His willingness to change his perspective.
Think of all the people that day who didn’t bother. Think of all the people everyday who don’t bother. Because Jesus is always passing through town. He is always walking by. But we’re too short to see him. We let the crowd obscure him.
I’ve had a number of wonderful conversations lately, with students and friends, and in one of them I was led to a passage in C.S. Lewis I’d never read before, an analysis of miracles.
“How could a thing remain unless you willed it?” Wisdom asks today. “Your imperishable spirit is in all things.” All of creation is miraculous, in other words, it’s a miracle always going on--or as Lewis puts it, “there is an activity of God displayed throughout all creation,” “a wholesale activity,” but in our smallness and our busyness we’re blind to it. We ignore it.
And that’s where the miracles come in. They are reminders of what is always already true. They do “locally” what God does “universally.” “They are a retelling in small letters,” Lewis says, “of the story which is written across the whole world in letters too large to see,” and if these miracles, the walking on water and the multiplication of loaves, if these miracles don’t help us to see the miracle of the everyday, if they don’t help us to see what’s always around us and in us, we’ve missed the whole point.
Water is always being changed into wine, every year, as the rains fall and the grapes grow. The body is always being healed, internally, naturally, “little by little” as Wisdom says. We are always dying and we are always rising and the little things of our lives are always being multiplied. The miracle of the Virgin Birth recalls for us the miracle of every sperm and every egg.
I really love this idea. It’s a wonderful idea: not that the miracles never happened but that they always are. We just have to know this, understand this. We just have to see behind the stars and the rain and the faces of the ones we love exactly the same power that calmed the storm and raised the dead—and to see that power not just as a power, not just as a law or a force, but as a person, as Christ, as the Lord himself, always and everywhere at work.
Of course the bread and the wine are the body of Christ. They always were.
We don’t change God in the Eucharist. We change ourselves.
We climb the sycamore.
Notice that in the story of Zacchaeus the Lord comes to stay with him before he decides to act morally, to make up for his sins and give to the poor. Moral behavior isn’t the condition of love but the result of it. We don’t have to earn this grace that is always around us, and we can’t.
But do have to act, as Mary, too, acts, when she hastens to the hills to see her cousin Elizabeth. We have to hasten, we have to run as Zacchaeus runs, quickly and without hesitation, not listening to the crowd.
Notice that it’s only the people who think that Jesus must come to the righteous and the good. It’s only the people who try to limit the Lord, to reduce him to systems or institutions or abstract notions of what’s right and wrong. The Lord could care less about all that, and so could Zacchaeus. That’s another thing we should admire about Zacchaeus: how he ignores the others. He “stands” there, Luke says. He stands his ground. He trusts in his love and his joy and his spontaneity and he ignores all those artificial formulas.
“Do whatever most kindles love in you,” St. Teresa of Avila says, and that’s what Zaccheus does. He isn’t “shaken out of his mind,” to quote Thessalonians from today, he isn’t “alarmed” or disturbed, because he knows that Christ never calls us when we are shaken like that, that we best hear and understand what the Lord wants from us when we are at peace, when we are in touch with our own best selves.
Our best selves. Zaccheus isn’t arrogant or proud. He knows how small he is, how fragile, but he also knows that he is infinitely loved, infinitely important to God. He just feels this, this amazing paradox: that the greatness of God is measured by his capacity and his willingness to love each little thing, to be present in each little thing. That that’s how God expresses his infinite nature. In the finite.
And of course that leads to moral action. Of course that leads, naturally and inevitably, to solidarity with the poor. “Behold,” Zaccheus says, “half of my possessions I shall give to the poor.” Because as soon as we recognize that God exists within us, even in our smallness and especially there, we intuitively, we spontaneously understand that he is present in everyone else and especially in the weak and the marginal and the outcast. It’s the logical corollary: humility and joy lead to compassion; self-love to love of others.
This is the mystery of our faith: that I am infinitely important to God. And so is everybody else.
It’s not a question of who is deserving and who is pure and who is right. It’s not a question of our favorite little issues and practices. It’s a question of the universe. It’s a question of all that is. “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance,” it is as “a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.” And we are the grain and we are the dew and we are precious in his sight, we are created by him and from him and therefore loved, for he loves all things that he has made, he spares all things, he abides in all things, and all things then are imperishable, all things then matter, they infinitely matter, you and me and the rain and the leaves and all that is and ever was and ever shall be.
What else can we do but climb this tree? What else can we do but climb up to this altar? The Lord today has come to our town. The Lord today has come into this house.
We have only to see him. We have only to ignore all those who tell us how foolish we are. We have only to believe in our joy.