Our economic troubles in the United Kingdom may soon be over. A 6-year-old girl heard our prime minister speaking of the hardships that lie ahead in the effort to bring the nation out of recession. She had just lost one of her baby teeth, and the tooth fairy had left her a pound coin in its place. Realizing the severity of the nation’s economic plight, she taped her pound coin to a letter that she sent to David Cameron with the request that he should use it “to make the country better and pay for jobs.”
The story touched all our hearts, and, of course, the pound was sent back to the sender, thanking her sincerely for her generosity but suggesting that Mr. Cameron would like her to spend it on something nice for herself. He was, however, reported to observe that if we all sent our tooth-fairy money, Britain would soon be on the road to recovery.
Would that it were so simple! Yet this story touches a deep truth. A 6-year-old gives away all she has so that someone else might benefit. She has it completely right. Miracles happen when we put the common good before our own personal gratification. The tiniest thing can be the start of a miracle. In fact the smaller the better, if Jesus’ parables are an indication of the divine dynamic. Little seeds, little deeds are the almost invisible beginnings from which transformation grows.
Perhaps our problem with miracles is that we try to get at them from the wrong end. We strive to see the end of the miracle—the great transformation, the unexpected cure, the new life where there was none before. But we very rarely notice the start of the miracle. This is a great pity because, actually, these almost invisible beginnings of the miraculous are all around us. It is a bit like going through the countryside and, because we are in the right place in the right season, happening to see a tree laden with fruit or a field ripe with corn.
What we do not see is the puff of wind that blows a seed through the air to land in the place where new growth might begin or the moment when a little bird flies off with a berry in its beak and drops it in a place where it can germinate and grow into a whole new berry-bearing plant.
Many years ago, I spent a morning in the Spanish Pyrenees meandering along the banks of a tiny mountain stream. That night in the apartment where I was staying, I was kept awake by the constant roar of the nearby power plant, which was keeping the entire region supplied with electricity. The trickle of clear mountain water that had delighted me in the morning had become the means of sustaining life for a whole community down in the valley.
I had witnessed the start of a miracle, and when you have seen one miracle beginning, you start to notice some of the many others gestating in the world around you. You may see, for example, how a word of encouragement turns a whole life around from despair to hope or how an apparent misfortune can open our minds to fresh perspectives and change the direction of our lives. The thing about miracles, of course, is that they usually take time. Perhaps that is the hidden gift of time—the opportunity to grow miracles in it.
I was spooning some cauliflower cheese into my baby granddaughter’s eager mouth one day, when a sudden realization dawned. “Do you know what?” I asked her, “You and I are performing a miracle here. We are turning a cauliflower into a little girl!” She smiled her approval and went on with her part in the miracle as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Perhaps it is. Perhaps the kingdom of God is the endpoint of the entire miracle we call life on earth, and each of us carries a seed of its beginnings, to plant and water or not as we choose. We may never see what it becomes, but time will.
The approach of Advent invites us to recognize miracles when they are still very small. The miracle of human transformation starts here, and almost no one recognizes it. Just an obedient Jewish girl and her betrothed, a few shepherds, an old man and an old woman in the Temple and a handful of visitors from the East. And the little child at the heart of it all invites us to come close, to see what a miracle looks like when it is just beginning and to be part of its growth and its fulfillment in our own lives in the precious time that we have been given.