Who doesn’t want to believe in miracles? Certainly the parishioners of a Greek Orthodox church in a southwest suburb of Chicago want to believe. For months, a painting of St. John the Baptist at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church has been seen with droplets of fragrant oil trickling from it. The oil appears to be dripping from the icon’s halo, hands, and beard — but not its eyes. So it’s not weeping. The oil is collected, put in a pitcher and then put on cotton balls that are dispensed in little plastic bags for worshipers to take home with them. Several people — including the parish priest — have said that since getting the oil, their various physical ailments have vanished. One man said a blockage in his artery had disappeared. The parish priest said that his nerve damage, which was so bad it had made him pass out, had subsided.
The church made no official announcement of this phenomenon, but word spread and visitors flocked there steadily in the run-up to last Sunday’s Eastern Orthodox observance of Easter — which celebrates, of course, what is for many one of the most enduring miracles of all time. If you can believe that Jesus was the son of God and that he rose from the dead, then surely you can believe that God is making a painting exude holy oil.
Are there are explanations for these events that are grounded in prosaic reality and not spiritual mystery? Absolutely. Some kind of chemical reaction or some other atmospheric effect in the church might be making the painting exude oil. It could even be a case of fraud: A cynical sacristan could be dabbing aromatic myrrh oil on the painting at night when everyone else has gone. People afflicted with ailments could be recovering for dozens of unrelated reasons. To their credit, Greek Orthodox officials and the parish priest haven’t tried to dispel the notion that there is some rational explanation for all this.
This is hardly the first religious statue or icon to suddenly weep or exude oil or water. In every case, people come to see, excited, hopeful, joyous.
But waiting for a miracle isn’t the point. It’s really not some statue on a wall, it’s not some liquid on a cotton ball that makes the world a better place. It’s all of us believing that we can make something happen that “cures” us and makes us open to change, which in turn makes the community where we live a better place. For example, it’s worth remembering here in Los Angeles County as we grapple with the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness that the solution involves opening all of our communities to housing for homeless people. And wouldn’t that make John the Baptist weep for joy.