Brianne JacobsMarch 29, 2021
A pharmacist administers the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to a patient in a pharmacy in Paris on March 19, 2021. (CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters)A pharmacist administers the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to a patient in a pharmacy in Paris on March 19, 2021. (CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters)

I wrote for America over a year ago about my mystical experience reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Previously I had thought of trees as merely autonomous, but I learned that forests are symbiotic and create their environments. They exhale the air, shape the earth and generate fauna. We human animals might be inclined to see the air as separate from the individual tree, but the forest is a breathing, integral, creative being. The Overstory made me feel a sense of kinship with plants as the very condition of my breath and being. Still, I could not completely let go of the anthropocentric notion that humans were different.

Just a few months after I finished The Overstory, Covid-19 exposed my error. Without knowing it, I had been breathing in a shared air, created with our bodies, my whole life. It has been the breath of life—the exhilaration of laughter, shared meals, songs, weeping, dancing, stories, fighting, worship and intimacy—sustaining and generating me as a part of the whole, like a forest, the living integral body of creation. But for the last year, we have largely gone without that breath which sustains and invigorates the entangled mass.

I wish I could breathe you all in. Instead, it has been plexiglass and screens, bodies without breath.

We have also had to do without the embracing Mass. The last Mass I attended was Ash Wednesday in 2020. That was also the last time I remember being touched by someone I do not live with. I remember giving the sign of the peace gingerly, with an inchoate sense of the coming prohibition. I remember the closeness of the whispered prayer, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and the priest’s cool fingers on my forehead. I feel like I am still carrying that ash on my forehead a year later.

Cut off from one another, we have been masked and on mute. I wish I could breathe you all in: the breath of your life, the shared body of Christ, the cup passed and the tumult of the crowd. Instead, it has been plexiglass and screens, bodies without breath.

The Covid-19 vaccines will bring us back to one another, allow us to breathe life back into the dust. That is a miracle.

What is a miracle? The idea of a miracle has shifted substantially over the past two thousand years, as we have moved into a more secular world. This does not mean that we cannot be religious, but it does mean that we are more likely to accept things like celestial movements, the weather and illnesses as natural, able to be studied and understood through the scientific method. One may still choose to be religious within this context, and one may even choose to see their faith as elevated by the insights of scientific inquiry. But as the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, only 500 years ago (and certainly during the time in which Jesus performed his miracles), occurrences that we might today call “natural” were seen as acts of God. Nature was “porous” to God, as all things were extensions of God’s movements and will.

The Covid-19 vaccines will bring us back to one another, allow us to breathe life back into the dust. That is a miracle.

For this reason, argues the biblical scholar Donald Senior, Jesus’ miracles would have been understood by those around him as a deep revelation of God’s power in nature—rather than a break or intervention of God into nature, which is how many define a miracle today. In Jesus’ time, recoveries from illness or good crop yields were considered miracles, vivid manifestations of God’s power. So in Christ, we see a power that lies not in a violation of nature but in the character of God revealed.

The miracles do not create riches or power, those things promised by Satan in the desert. The miracles exhibit God’s power to overcome evil: to calm the threatening seas, free the captive, raise the dead, heal the sick and restore the disregarded. The aim is always the same: God’s kingdom, a reign of compassion and mercy in which all are sought and treasured. As St. Irenaeus writes, the glory of God is the human person, fully alive. This is the aim of the kingdom of God, revealed in the power of Christ’s miracles.

So to my mind as a 21st-century person, a miracle is not something that bends nature but something that, like Christ’s works, manifests God’s power to restore life.

If, after this year, the vaccines can restore our communion, that restoration will not be perfect. Covid-19 has highlighted the many ruptures—racial, economic, political—that need to be repaired and the connections that need still to be restored for our social body to be whole. We have lost more than we can comprehend, and we will not get back the time or the lives we have lost. Just as Christ’s body, returned to life, bore the wounds of trauma, we are all discovering holes left gaping wide enough to put in a finger.

These vaccines will restore us to one another, to the great entangled mass of life, dust animated by the breath of being fully alive. A miracle.

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