Section 2. The Change of Water into Oil at the Prayer of St. Narcissus of Jerusalem

{255} 127. NARCISSUS, Bishop of Jerusalem, when oil failed for the lamps on the vigil of Easter, sent the persons who had the care of them to the neighbouring well for water. When they brought it, he prayed over it, and it was changed into oil [Note 1]. Narcissus was made Bishop about A.D. 180, at the age of eighty-four; he was at a Council on the question of Easter 195, and lived through some years of the third century, dying at the extraordinary age of a hundred and sixteen, or more.

128. It is favourable to the truth of this account, that the instrument of the miracle was an aged, and, as also was the case, a very holy man. It may be added that he was born in the first century, before St. John's death, and was in some sense an Apostolical Father, as Jortin observes.

129. But there are certain remarkable circumstances connected with him, which, as persons regard them, {256} will be viewed in contrary lights, as making the miracle more or as less probable. Eusebius informs us that Narcissus was for some years the victim of a malignant calumny. Three men, disliking his strictness and the discipline he exercised, accused him of some great crime, with an imprecation on themselves if they spoke falsely; the first that he might perish by fire, the second that he might be smitten with disease, and the third that he might lose his eyesight. Narcissus fled from his Church, and lived many years in the wild parts of the country, as a solitary. At length the first of his three accusers was burned in his house, with all his family; the second was covered from head to foot with the disease which he had named; and the third confessed his crime, but, overcome with shame and remorse, lost his eyes by weeping. Narcissus was restored, and died in possession of his see.

130. Now it may be said that the extraordinary nature of this history only increases the improbability of the miracle. It reads like a made story; there is a completeness about it; and there is an extravagance in the notion of the loss of sight by weeping. Yet the same thing happened to St. Francis. "His eyes," says Butler, "seemed two fountains of tears, which were almost continually falling from them, insomuch that at length he almost lost his sight." He was seared with red-hot iron from the ear to the eye-brow, {257} with the hope of saving it. In his last illness "he scarce allowed himself any intermission from prayer, and would not check his tears, though the physician thought it necessary for the preservation of his sight; which he entirely lost upon his death-bed." [Note 2] However, even though we allow that the history in question is embellished, still the general outline may remain, that Narcissus was unjustly accused and by a wonderful providence vindicated. In this point of view it surely adds to the probability of the miracle before us, that it is attributed to a man, not only so close upon Apostolic times and persons, so holy, so aged, but in addition so strangely tried, so strangely righted. It removes the abruptness and marvellousness of what at first sight looks like "naked history," as Paley calls it, or what we commonly understand by a legend. Such a man may well be accounted "worthy for whom Christ should do this." And if the foregoing circumstances are true, not only in outline, but in detail, then still greater probability is added to the miracle.

131. Jortin objects that "the change of water into oil to supply the church lamps has the air of a miracle performed upon an occasion rather too slender." [Note 3] But Dodwell [Note 4] had already observed that the mystical idea connected with the sacred lights gives a meaning to {258} it, and particularly at that season; and Eusebius tells us that the people were much troubled [Note 5] at their failure.

132. Jortin also observes that "in the time of Augustus a fountain of oil burst out at Rome, and flowed for a whole day. In natural history there are accounts of greasy and bituminous springs, when something like oil has floated on the water. Pliny, and Hardouin in his notes, mention many such fountains, 'qui explent olei vicem,' and 'quorum aqu lucern ardeant.'" This circumstance perhaps adds probability to the miracle, both as lessening its violence, (if the word may be used,) as the accompanying history of the Bishop's trials lessens it in another way, and because in matter of fact Almighty Wisdom seems, as appears from Scripture, not unfrequently to work miracles beyond, rather than against nature.

133. Eusebius notices pointedly that it was the tradition of the Church of Jerusalem [Note 6]. It should be recollected, however, that the tradition had but a narrow interval to pass from Narcissus to Eusebius,—not above fifty or sixty years, as the latter was born about A.D. 264.

134. On the whole then there seems sufficient ground to justify us in accepting this narrative as in truth an instance of our Lord's gracious presence {259} with His Church, though the evidence is not so definite or minute as to enable us to realize the miracle. This is a remark which is often in point; belief, in any true sense of the word, requires a certain familiarity or intimacy of the mind with the thing believed. Till it is in some way brought home to us and made our own, we cannot properly say we believe it, even when our reason receives it. This occurs constantly as regards matters of opinion and doctrine. Take any characteristic point of detail in the religious views of a person whom we revere and follow on the whole; do we believe this particular doctrine or opinion of his, or do we not? We do not like to pledge ourselves to it, yet we shrink from saying that it is not true, and we defend it when we hear it attacked. We have no doubt about it, yet we cannot bring ourselves to say positively that we believe it, because belief implies an habitual presence and abidance of the matter believed in our thoughts, and a familiar acquaintance with the ideas it involves, which we cannot profess in the instance in question. Here we see the use of reading and studying the Gospels in order to true belief in our Lord; and, again, of acting upon His words, in order to true belief in them [Note 7]. This being considered, I do not see that we can be said actually to believe in a miracle like that now in question, of which so little is known in detail, and {260} which is so little personally interesting to us; but we cannot be said to disbelieve it, there being sufficient grounds for conviction in the sense in which we believe the greater part of the accounts of general history.

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Notes

1. Euseb. Hist. vi. 9.
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2. Lives of the Saints, Oct. 4.
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3. Dissert. in Iren. ii. 49.
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4. Vol. ii. p. 103.
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5. [Deines athumias dialabouses to pan plethos].
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6. [Hos ek paradoseos ton kata diadochen adelphon].
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7. [Vid. Essay towards a Grammar of Assent, Ch. iv. 2.]
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