What kinds of miracles occur during Liturgy? How does the Orthodox Church understand miracles? Do people expect miracles when they go to Church?
These are samples of the kinds of questions I have been wrestling with this summer, in preparing a paper for a conference at UCLA on the liturgy in Russian culture.
In November 2011, the Russian Orthodox Church received a visit from a venerable relic among Eastern Christians: Mary’s Belt, preserved by the Vatopedi monastery. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill seized the opportunity to invite Russian citizens to venerate Mary’s Belt. In his speeches, he gently but clearly offered the possibility of receiving a miracle: the healing of a disease, and especially the grace of conceiving children and reducing infertility.
In fact, this promise was consistently communicated as a sign of “divine grace,” an important term referring to the epiclesis in the Byzantine Eucharistic liturgy and also appearing in some ancient ordination rites. Kyrill even told the story of a woman who had promised Mary that she would request Baptism if Mary healed her; upon receiving healing, the woman was baptized the next day. Over three million Russians and pilgrims waited in very long lines in the November cold of Moscow to pray at Mary’s Belt. Most of them spent a disproportionate amount of time outside, and Kyrill interpreted their endurance as a sign of faith reviving in Russia.
As I read this account, I can’t help but to feel wary of hyperbole. My hesitance is partly attributable to my own history of questioning wonderworking relics.
To be sure, I have seen miraculous relics with my own eyes.
A myrrh-streaming (and quite fragrant!) icon of my patron saint Nicholas at a Russian Orthodox skete in Fridley; Jesus’ shroud (called an epitaphios or plashchanitsa in Byzantine-rite churches, adorning his tomb on Good Friday) emitting a fluid that appeared to be blood at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis in the early 1990’s; and a skull of an unnamed monk gushing fragrant oil at the Pecherska Lavra monastery in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1993. As with Mary’s Belt in Russia last year, people lined up to receive anointing from the myrrh-streaming relics, in the hopes of being healed.
Perhaps some of them received healing, but how can one explain the multitudes of faithful Christians who honor Mary and the saints with pilgrimages and beg them for healing of diseases, yet remain sick and even die? How many of us have watched faithful men, women, and children endure grievous suffering, only to die? Where was their “divine grace”?
My paper compares the Russian Church’s description of the kind of miracle one could receive when venerating Mary’s Belt to the miracle that occurs at the Eucharistic assembly.
In Russia, sacramental participation in the Eucharist is generally tepid. People do not frequently receive communion because the prevailing teaching of the Synodal and Soviet periods, spanning over two-hundred years, encouraged communion from one to four times a year in a system called govenie. Govenie stresses intense preparation for each communion, including fasting, extra prayers, and sacramental confession. Its foundational theology is that infrequent communion spares the recipient from condemnation given the general difficulty people have in avoiding sin.
This teaching is obviously incoherent with the promise of divine grace when approaching communion, and contemporary Russian Church leaders have been laboring to invite people to receive more frequently. The difference is in what people might expect to gain from participation.
The pitch for Mary’s Belt was a miracle; a miracle is also promised at the Eucharist, but the gain or benefit is not healing, but transformation into bearers of Christ, which echoes Cyril of Jerusalem’s famous fourth-century teaching.
The miracle of the Eucharist cannot be verified by healings of diseases or an increase in fertility, though such instances warrant thanksgiving. The miracle of the Eucharist capacitates one to become like Christ. Participants are not spared from suffering or illnesses; their transformation will be manifest in lives expressing thanksgiving to God for everything, even when disease and suffering remain present until death.
Perhaps Russians will begin to respond to the invitation to frequent communion with the same enthusiasm they expressed towards the opportunity to venerate Mary’s Belt. Perhaps the promise of transformation pales in comparison to the possibility of receiving healing. Regardless of what happens, it is refreshing to see Church leaders describing the miracle of the Eucharist as transformation, because only transformed and transfigured people have the capacity to change the world.
Nicholas Denysenko is assistant professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is an ordained deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.