If you’re a sports fan above a certain age, or a sports fan at all, you’re probably familiar with the iconic question that ABC broadcaster Al Michaels asked during an epic hockey game at the Winter Olympics of 1980. It occurred when Team USA, made up entirely of young amateurs, defeated the heavily favored Soviet Union team stacked with hardened, experienced professionals. As the final seconds of the game ran out and it became clear that the Americans were about to grasp a totally improbable victory, Al Michaels captured the excitement of the moment and the pride of a nation when he asked, “Do you believe in miracles?”
It strikes me that the same question, which has become an indelible part of sports history, can also serve as a gateway to our observance of Christmas.
The Christmas story which we’ve come to know and love, is a charming, heart-warming tale that has captured the imagination of people for two-thousand years. It has been illustrated by great works of art, beautiful songs and hymns, modest little nativity scenes in our homes, generations of school children in Christmas pageants, and even Charlie Brown and his friends.
But the Christmas story is much, much more than a cute little fairy tale. It’s a narrative that contains great theological truths that define our relationship with God and change the meaning of human life. If you don’t believe in miracles, though, the story is silly; it’s nonsense; it’s crazy. If you don’t believe in miracles you can’t begin to grasp the real meaning of Christmas.
To believe that the eternal, omnipotent and transcendent God chose to become a simple, humble, vulnerable baby in the womb of a virgin to save his wayward children, you have to believe in miracles.
To believe that Mary, by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, conceived and gave birth to this child while remaining a virgin before, during and after his birth, you have to believe in miracles.
To believe that Joseph, the spouse of the virgin, came to understand and accept God’s plan and the unique circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy only when an angel appeared to him in a dream, you have to believe in miracles.
To believe that shepherds keeping watch over their flock in the environs of Bethlehem learned of the birth of the Savior through the personal announcement of an angel, a message that was serenaded by choirs of angels who appeared in the heavens, you have to believe in miracles.
To believe that a mysterious star suddenly arose in the sky and led the Magi from distant lands to the tiny stable in Bethlehem so that they could present their homage and gifts to the newborn king, you have to believe in miracles.
And to believe that an angel spoke to Joseph in yet another dream to warn him of the murderous rampage of King Herod, instructing him to take the Holy Family to a safe refuge in Egypt, you have to believe in miracles.
In short, without miracles, there’s no Christmas.
Recently I heard an excellent homily in which the priest made an insightful distinction between magic and mystery. You don’t have to believe in magic, (in fact you shouldn’t believe in magic), to accept the meaning of Christmas he explained. But you do have to believe in mystery, the mystery of God’s love and salvation revealed to us in Jesus Christ. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.
And to the discussion of magic and mystery, I add miracles. And I wonder – even if you believe in the miracles recorded in the Bible, the miracles of the Christmas story, for example – do you believe that miracles can still occur today? Think about it: if God elected to reach down from heaven and change the course of human history two thousand years ago, why wouldn’t he get involved in our lives today?
Can’t we at least hope that God will intervene in the sad state of affairs in our troubled world and bring an end to war, terrorism, violence, torture, persecution and discrimination?
Can’t we dream that God will reach out his arms and lift our society up and away from the problems that plague us every day – poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, domestic abuse, pornography and abortion, for example?
Can’t we pray with some confidence that God will step into our daily lives to heal a loved one from a terminal disease; inspire renewed love and commitment in a troubled marriage; or bring about reconciliation in a broken, divided family?
Or is it impossible to think that God in his mercy might touch the sterile soul of a committed atheist to inspire religious faith; or move a fallen-away Catholic, perhaps a son or daughter, to bring them back to the Church, to Sunday Mass and the sacraments?
You see, I think all of these things are possible, because I believe in God. I believe in miracles. Of course I also understand that if God chooses not to intervene in these human affairs I have to accept that too. God knows what he’s doing. He has a plan. His wisdom and love far surpasses my limited insight and meager virtue.
So, do you believe in miracles? I hope you do. And I pray that you and your loved ones will have a joyful and blessed Christmas and New Year!