What Is the Greatest Miracle of All?

‘God was in love, but he could not keep the secret,’ said Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. ‘The telling of it was creation.’

Giovanni di Paolo, “The Creation of the World and the Expulsion From Paradise,” 1445
Giovanni di Paolo, “The Creation of the World and the Expulsion From Paradise,” 1445 (photo: Public Domain)

Shall I tell you the greatest miracle of all and where to find it in Holy Scripture? The answer may surprise you because it is not, as one might expect, the Easter miracle for which we have long been waiting. No, not even if Easter remains the event upon which faith finally does depend. If Christ be not risen from the grave, as the Apostle Paul warns, thereby ascending into the heavens to prepare a place for us, our lives are less than zero, fated to remain hopeless and abject forever. Or that no human intuition is more certain, more consoling, than that, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Never was a tale told that men would rather find true.” 

Nevertheless, Easter is not the greatest miracle of all.

Nor is it the event of the Incarnation, which is the miraculous moment when, in the exultant language of Hopkins, “infinity dwindled to infancy,” and God entered fully into the fallen human estate. Which makes perfect sense, right? If divinity is to be wedded to frail and sinful humanity, how else would God wish to show it than by becoming one of us? Only the sheer monstration of divine love in the human being Jesus provides sufficient proof that we are precious enough to justify sending his only Son into the world.

But, again, that is not the greatest miracle of all.

No, the greatest possible miracle wrought by God is the creation of the world. Because, quite simply, nothing else can happen without it. It is the presupposition for everything that follows. God does not enter the womb, nor does he exit the tomb, unless there is a world into which he may be born, then reborn. Grace cannot perfect a nature that is not yet there. And so God has first got to give us the grit — only then may we look for the glory. Creation, in other words, has simply got to be the catalyzing event. Leave out the matter and the meaning will, like a hot air balloon, float off into the heavens above. Everything, says St. Thomas Aquinas, including the heights of mysticism, begins in the senses. 

And where do we find this miracle but on the very first page of Scripture, indeed, the opening verse of the Book of Genesis, thus showcasing its primacy in the clearest and most obvious way:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 

St. Augustine tells us that the birth of a child, any child, is an event more miraculous than even the raising of Lazarus. Why is that, you may ask? Because it is an easier thing to raise to new life someone who once was than to give life to someone who never was. What, after all, is the more stupendous event: the fact that Jesus returned a dead man to life, or the fact that the dead man had, at a precise moment in time and space, actually begun to exist? That God delivered out of nothingness a being now destined never to return to that nothingness?

From nothingness to being is an absolute leap — a metaphysical homerun — that only God can pull off and, seeing all the impossible people who nevertheless are, it seems as if God has taken great and redundant delight in doing it over and over again. As in that lovely conceit of Chesterton’s that would have God each day instructing the sun to “Do it again!” Thus does Mr. Sun arise afresh each morning as though he had never done it before. 

Then, of course, there is that somewhat brusque-sounding sentence God spoke to St. Catherine of Siena, reminding her that, “I am he who is, and you are she who is not.” What a wonderful compliment that is, by the way — for if she, like all creatures who have no claim on being, is nevertheless allowed to be, the reason for it must surely have everything to do with God’s freedom, and nothing to do with his necessity. God is not constrained to make anything, in other words — yet he has gone clean out of his way to make everything. And not as a function of justice, but of mercy. How nicely Fulton Sheen put it when he wrote that “God was in love, but he could not keep the secret. The telling of it was creation.” 

In The Religious Sense, a work of luminous beauty and insight, which I have assigned my students more often than I can remember, Luigi Giussani asks the reader to imagine himself at the very moment of birth. In full possession, that is, not of the blank sheet on which nothing has yet been written, but of an adult consciousness. “What would be the first, absolutely your initial reaction?” Not for a moment does Giussani hesitate to tell us what his reaction would be. “If I were to open my eyes for the first time in that instant, emerging from my mother’s womb, I would be overpowered by the wonder and awe of things as a ‘presence.’” 

In other words, the sheer stupefying encounter with being, with the otherness of a presence I did not myself make but may, as if by the grace of God, receive with gladness and delight. “Becoming aware,” he exclaims, “of an inexorable presence!” 

I open my eyes to this reality that imposes itself upon me, that does not depend upon me, but upon which I depend; it is the great conditioning of my existence — if you like, the given. It is this awe that awakens the ultimate question within us — not as a cold observation, but as a wonder pregnant with an attraction.

Here is the prime intuition that defines us all. The stunning sense of awe, of wonderment, in the face of being, of seeing a world we did not make but which comes from Another, for whom unending gratitude is due. To say thanks for a gift I could never myself give — that is the only appropriate response. 

“Without this concept,” concludes Giusanni, “everything man touches turns to dust.”