The Redeemer pictured in the sky
Before breakfast one day last week, I checked out a YouTube video, “ Face of Jesus appears in toast.” Underneath are the words, “ I have kept the slice in a plastic bag to protect it.” Though Skeptical is my middle name, I couldn’t help but stare at my slice of toast a little longer than usual before downing it.
For readers who are so inclined, they can also check out videos displaying apparitions of Jesus in a potato chip and a cabbage, and on a candle and an ashtray after a party in Australia.
I immediately remembered a story I once read in the St. John’s newspaper, Mail and Advocate. For your reading pleasure, here it is in its entirety, as it appeared in the August 9, 1915 edition.
“ Yesterday afternoon, some people who were driving citywards from Torbay, and amongst whom was one gentleman whose position is a warrant for his veracity, witnessed a phenomenon which they will remember with awe and reverence as long as they live.
“ It was about 3:30 p.m. when suddenly they observed in the clouds a vivid picture of the Redeemer of a brilliantly red colour. Every lineament of the sacred features and person was plainly outlined and the right hand was raised and pointed up towards the heavens.
“ The beholders, one of whom was Mr. John Dooley, cabman, who drove the party, were overcome with emotion at the spectacle and viewed it for fully 20 minutes. It appeared suddenly and faded from view suddenly.
“ What it portends it is impossible to say, but that it presages something of an unusual character cannot be any doubt.”
Really? Two months later, the news item was picked up by an American Pentecostal periodical, Word and Work. By December, it had also appeared in an English Pentecostal periodical, Confidence. I wonder, what is it with these early Pentecostals?
After reading the item in the St. John’s newspaper, I contacted Philip Hiscock of the Department of Folklore at Memorial University.
“ That’s a wonderful piece of local folklore,” he said. “I hadn’t heard about it before, but it certainly fits in with some other local phenomena.”
He reminded me of the day in 1905 — June 24 — when the St. John’s photographer T.B. Hayward captured a snapshot of the legendary Virgin Mary iceberg, which subsequently came to be known as Our Lady of the Fjords and the Crystal Lady. In his personal memoir, “ Baltimore’s Mansion,” Wayne Johnston wrote about the so-called Virgin Berg.
“ The ice was enfolded like layers of garment that bunched about her feet. Long drapings of ice hung from her arms, which were crossed below her neck, and her head was tilted down as in statues to meet in love and modesty the gaze of supplicants below.”
Michael Francis Howley (18431914), the Roman Catholic archbishop at the time, actually wrote a sonnet about the apparition.
It reads, in part:
I also contacted the contemporary dean of urban legends, an American professor, Jan Harold Brunvand.
“ It doesn’t seem to me so much an urban legend, as just a report of a quasi-religious sighting,” he said. “ This sort of thing … happens all the time, with people finding supposedly holy images in everything.”
Through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and, perhaps, long before that, there have been alleged sightings all over the world of Jesus and his mother. They have appeared on oil stains, tortillas, garden vegetables, rock walls, windows, pizzas and elsewhere. There have even been appearances in tree rings, tree trunks and tree bark. At Toronto’s Ave Maria Centre, there’s an image of the Blessed Virgin embracing Pope John Paul II.
“ Seeing such images in clouds or smoke is fairly common,” Brunvand added. “ Some even saw the devil’s face in the smoke and dust that came from the World Trade Centre tragedy on 9/11/01.”
He called the image of the Redeemer pictured in the sky over St. John’s in 1915 an “ interesting early example of the phenomenon, and it’s interesting that several people claimed to see the vision for a rather long period.”
Please be assured my purpose here is not to dampen people’s enthusiasm for such divine apparitions. Rather, I wish to make two simple points. First, to be perfectly honest, God knows I’ve believed some wild, wacky and weird things — religious and otherwise — through the years. Second, to tweak Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s wellknown quotation, “I (may) disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”