Love Story #8 The water had become wine

Can we really believe that Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana?

Many people believe not.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume has been influential in shaping our culture’s scepticism about miracles. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, he described a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”. I don’t think his reasoning stands up, but what I want to challenge here is his definition. There is a lot more to the miraculous than messing with the “laws of nature”[1]. Many things in the history of God’s world are miraculous without violating any natural law; some of these are instances of awesome timing.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux[2] played a major role for several decades in researching and publicizing the persecution of Christians in the USSR. He was launched on this path by what he describes as a miracle so wildly improbable as to make it literally almost unbelievable – certainly far too outlandish to put in a work of fiction. Wildly improbable but in fact true.

Bourdeaux had learnt Russian as part of his British National Service and then gone on to study Russian and French at Oxford. He spent the academic year 1959-60 at Moscow University, during which time he made many Russian friends, some of whom were Christians. He learnt from them that the Church was being subjected to increasingly brutal persecution.

He went on to be ordained in the Church of England. But during his time as a curate in North London he had a growing sense that his real call was to serve the Church in Russia rather than devote himself to pastoral work in the UK.

But how?

Then, in 1964, quite unexpectedly he received a letter from one of his old Oxford tutors; the letter contained the English translation of an appeal from two Ukrainian Christians (in the far west of the Soviet Union). They were asking for help to prevent the Soviet government from closing the famous Pochaev monastery; they gave details of the physical persecution of the monks – beaten up by the KGB, humiliated and dumped in the remotest parts of the countryside far from human habitation. The letter was signed by two women, with surnames only: Varavva and Pronina.

Bourdeaux sensed that this was a call to him from God to get involved and do something to help.

Later that year he was able to go to Moscow and catch up with some of his Christian friends. They told him that they knew the persecution of Christians had been getting more intense out in the provinces; now the persecution had begun to affect them here in Moscow. They spoke in particular of a church building which had been destroyed by the Soviet army despite the protests of parishioners. It was a beautiful church which Bourdeaux himself knew well. He decided to go and have a look, taking a taxi to make the most of the remaining daylight.

He stopped the taxi some distance from the square where the church was located to avoid arousing suspicion and walked the rest of the way. When he arrived, all he could see was a twelve-foot high wooden fence surrounding the building. And then he spotted two dumpy black figures by the fence, one of them attempting to hoist the other up to peer through a gap.

He decided he must talk to these women; he waited until they left the square and followed them discreetly for a hundred yards or so. Then he approached them directly. Once they had got over their fear at being accosted like this (he explained that he was a foreigner and a Christian concerned about the persecution of the Church), they told him to come with them so that they could talk properly. There followed a tortuous journey in silence across Moscow by bus and tram to a wooden building on the outskirts of the city.

Once inside, the two women and the owner of the house wanted to know more about their foreign visitor; how exactly had he heard about the persecution of the Church? He explained about the letter from the Ukraine appealing for help to stop the closure of the Pochaev monastery. They asked: Who wrote the letter? Bourdeaux managed to dredge up from his memory the two bare feminine surnames: Varavva and Pronina.

A stunned silence followed. Had he said something wrong? Then one of the women began to sob and introduced her friend: “This is Feodosia Varavva”. The woman identified as Varavva responded that, yes, she had written the appeal. And then she in turn pointed to one of the other women, indicating that this was Pronina, the other signatory of the appeal.

There is nothing in the laws of nature which says that outrageous coincidences cannot happen. A letter from two Ukrainian peasant women finds its way by a roundabout route to a British Christian they have never heard of, who then one evening turns up in the same Moscow square at precisely the same time as them – when all of them are hundreds of miles (in his case many hundreds of miles) from home. This was a miracle of timing.

It shaped the rest of Michael Bourdeaux’s life. It was a sign, pointing him in the direction of God’s call and enabling him to step out of the security of his job in the Church of England and, with a wife and child to provide for, strike out on his own, trusting that God would meet their needs. There was a cost and a risk, and the miracle of timing which launched him on this path helped him take the risk.

He went on to found Keston College (now the Keston Institute), which provided reliable research into Soviet persecution of religion. Varavva and Pronina never became famous, but Michael Bourdeaux became virtually a household name among educated Orthodox Christians in Moscow. That seemingly chance encounter outside a demolished church building became highly significant for the life of the Christian Church in the Soviet Union and other communist countries.

This not the whole story. It takes more than a miracle of timing to turn water into wine. I’ll come back to this in future posts.

[1] Professor Colin Humphreys is a Cambridge University physicist who interprets some of the biblical miracles as miracles of timing: see Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories (Continuum, 2003). (I think his explanation of the crossing of the Jordan is very convincing, his explanation of the Exodus itself much less so.)

[2] For what follows, see Michael Bourdeaux, Risen Indeed: Lessons in Faith from the USSR, (Darton, Longman and Todd / St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983).

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

4 thoughts on “Love Story #8 The water had become wine

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