I was raised to believe in miracles. My dad, David Barry, was a Midwestern-born Presbyterian minister who dedicated himself to improving people’s lives in the toughest New York neighborhoods. He knew that he would lose many more battles than he ever won, but he believed every small victory was worth the struggle. Marion Barry, my mom, was a Methodist gal from Dust Bowl era Eastern Colorado/Western Nebraska with a probing, funny mind that had no truck with the world’s malarkey. They were pragmatists who lived through the Great Depression and the annihilation of the Second World War. Who would think two realists would believe in miracles? Yet they did.
It doesn’t make any sense to believe in miracles, really. If we sit and wait for one, it might be the last thing we do. If we are convinced we know what the miracle will be, it’s very likely we will be disappointed.
Believing in miracles can even be a sign that we are delusional. The evidence that we do not live in a fairy tale is all around. Every day we are confronted with the grim realities of injustice, violence, and suffering. This was so in the first century and it still is. We don’t emphasize this to our children or each other because to spend too much time facing these facts would paralyze us; but we also avoid talking about the world’s tragedies, beyond short water cooler conversations, because they are unpleasant and we’d rather think they are not our problem.
My parents were realists. They knew, as I know, as you know, that King Herod had the power to “kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,” as it says in the Christmas story in Matthew. Worse, we know that when a king issues such a command, the soldiers will carry it out. The innocents are not always saved. No fairytale will console the weeping mother.
There are Herods today. There are always Herods. We may be the Herods. A realist knows this.
I am a realist and yet I believe in miracles—but not the kind that say that the Herods will always get their comeuppance at the end of the movie. That is not what I am waiting and watching for this Christmas. Herod goes on with his malevolent work, but evil doesn’t prevail. A man and a woman flee the country with an infant child. Shepherds look up from their toil, as if awakened from a dream, to news of great joy. What’s more, they do something about it. Working stiffs, regular people, believing that hope is greater than fear, they follow, because they know now that they can make a difference. Herod’s agenda is not The Agenda.
That’s the kind of miracle I believe in—not a fairytale, but the victories that happen in spite of evil and corruption. These are the little miracles my father and mother believed in and worked for: people working together to give someone a second chance, to heal a family, to change a neighborhood. These are the miracles that will save us all—the miracles of hope, and joy, and promise that are always here with us, lighting our way in the darkness.