Thumbs up or down? The Los Angeles Times offers wink, wink verdict on weeping icon

Do you remember the relatively minor buzz in the mainstream press not that long ago about the icon -- located on the iconostasis at the front of an Orthodox sanctuary -- that appeared to be exuding drops of myrrh?

If you don't, click here for the GetReligion post on that story. It helped, of course, that this story broke as some journalists were seeking a hook for this year's story on the Orthodox celebration of the greatest feast in Christian life -- Pascha (or Easter).

There were television crews that went face-to-face with the icon, such as in this local CBS report. However, it was the story in The Chicago Tribune that started the mini-boomlet in coverage. You may recall that this is how it began

Since July, tiny droplets of fragrant oil have trickled down an icon of St. John the Baptist in front of the altar at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Homer Glen. Parishioners believe the oil has healing properties and that its origins are a blessing from God. ...
Whether it's an act of God or a chemical reaction, no one really knows. And frankly, few in the Greek Orthodox community care. A rational explanation is irrelevant if what seems to be a supernatural event draws people toward God, clergy say.

As you would expect, this was a case in which the word "miracle" went safely into scare quotes. However, this news story -- to my surprise -- ended up drawing editorial-page comment in The Los Angeles Times, of all places. Some people sent me the URL saying the editorial was wonderful, from a faith perspective, while others thought it was horrible.

The headline: "Is it a miracle? Does it matter as long as you believe it is?" Please read it all and make your own decision.

Here is some crucial material at the end of this short piece:

Are there are explanations for these events that are grounded in prosaic reality and not spiritual mystery? Absolutely. Some kind of chemical reaction or some other atmospheric effect in the church might be making the painting exude oil. It could even be a case of fraud: A cynical sacristan could be dabbing aromatic myrrh oil on the painting at night when everyone else has gone. People afflicted with ailments could be recovering for dozens of unrelated reasons. To their credit, Greek Orthodox officials and the parish priest haven't tried to dispel the notion that there is some rational explanation for all this.

This is hardly the first religious statue or icon to suddenly weep or exude oil or water. In every case, people come to see, excited, hopeful, joyous.

But waiting for a miracle isn't the point. It's really not some statue on a wall, it's not some liquid on a cotton ball that makes the world a better place. It's all of us believing that we can make something happen that “cures” us and makes us open to change, which in turn makes the community where we live a better place.

Well, journalists have confirmed that the sanctuary has a 24-hour security camera system. No evil trickster is dabbing myrrh on the icon, day after day after day.

Once again we also have the mysterious proposal of an "atmospheric effect" that is touching this icon and none of the others that were created on the same wooden structure at the same time with precisely the same methods. So far, no one has stepped forward to propose what kind of "atmospheric effect" we are talking about that can produce 5,000 or so cotton swaps worth of oil.

As I said in my first piece on this story:

So something in the air conditioning is interacting with egg tempera and natural pigments (icons are written/created through a very traditional process) and the result is a fragrant oil? That's a logical, rational explanation?
Maybe. But let's have an expert or two make a case for that. Shall we?
At the same time, it would have helped to have had some direct observation of the phenomenon itself. As someone who has faced a weeping icon, (and, yes, I am an Orthodox layman) let me state that one of the first things that hits you is the smell -- which has often been compared to crushed rose petals. It's not something that one often encounters in random condensation on a physical object.

From my perspective, this Los Angeles Times may be one of the greatest statements ever of how many -- not all -- mainstream journalists view religion.

You see, it really doesn't matter if any of these religious truth claims are true. It doesn't matter if some religious events and trends involve circumstances that are hard to explain with the laws of science.

All that matters is that people feel nice things and then do nice things for each other. Oh, and these religious feelings are supposed to make us all open to change. Hint, hint, hint.

Sigh. Take that, saints and martyrs through the ages. Take that, Pope Francis. Take that, Martin Luther King, Jr. Take that Lottie Moon. Take that Dorothy Day. Take that Sojourner Truth. Take that Lech Walesa. Take that Eric Liddell. Take that, Mother Teresa. It really doesn't matter if any of that religious stuff that inspired you is real, what's important is that it produces the kinds of actions that warm the hearts of editors at The Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, I would like to end with my JOURNALISTIC question from the earlier GetReligion piece. If people want to debate the status of this icon (and many others like it), then that's more than appropriate. Let's ask practical, journalistic questions and quote people on the record. Thus:

... I am not asking for a theological opinion here. I am not asking a major newspaper to validate a miracle, somehow. I am asking -- to be specific -- what the icon and the oil smelled like to the journalist or journalists who faced it.
So let me ask: yes or no. Did anyone linked to the newspaper actually touch and smell the oil?

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