Miracles and Magic
BY FR. DWIGHT LONGENECKER
Have you ever thought about the similarities between the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk and David and Goliath? In both stories the hero is the little guy — the underdog. In both stories the hero is confronted with a big, ugly giant. Both Jack and David are likely to become wealthy heroes if they defeat the giant. Jack will get the goose who lays golden eggs. David will get to marry the princess and be best friends with the prince. Both Jack and David outsmart the giant and bring him down.
Both stories carry lessons for life: Don’t underestimate the little guy. Don’t work harder; work smarter. There are big, ugly giants in the world who are greedy and cruel, and it is our job to fight them. The little weapons are often the most effective and go with God to defeat the giants of sin in your life.
In every society down through history, the storytellers were also the preachers. The stories they told were legends, myths, and fairy tales. Very often the stories had magical elements. A fairy godmother, a witch, or a wizard would appear to help or hinder the hero. These stories help to unify the community, teach life lessons, and open the child’s heart and mind in wonder at the world and the mysterious workings of God.
But there’s a problem. Are the stories true?
FAIRY TALES AND FAITH STORIES
Because there are miracles in the Bible stories, many modern people treat them in the same way as fairy tales. The Christmas story with singing angels and a magical star seems like a fantasy tale. Jack and the Beanstalk and David and Goliath are put into the same category. The angel coming to the Virgin Mary sounds like the fairy godmother helping Cinderella. So are the Bible stories just another form of fairy tale?
Since we hear the stories as children, it is even easier for us to put Bible stories and fairy tales in the same group. But to do so is to be unfair to both the Bible stories and the fairy tales. We have to distinguish between different types of stories and different categories of truth.
When we read a news story or a history book, we assume we are connecting with events that really happened. We say these stories are “true” because we can verify them. However, a story also can be true on a different level. Like the Jack and David stories, life truths are contained within the tale. Some stories are “true” only on the factual level. Some stories, such as fairy tales, are true only in the lessons they teach. However, some stories are true on both levels: They really happened and they teach life lessons.
Some people refer to this category of story as “legend.” However, when most people hear the word “legend,” they think the story didn’t really happen. Therefore, I like to use the term “faith stories” for the stories that are true on both levels. As believers we tell faith stories all the time. The lives of the saints are full of faith stories, and in our own ordinary experiences, we recount stories that really happened but also teach us life lessons.
Some time ago I was called to administer last rites. When I got to the hospital, the man’s daughter and a nurse were in the room. I prayed with them, then heard the man’s confession. When we were done, I asked the nurse and the daughter to join me as I anointed him. The old man was struggling to speak, and as I leaned over to hear his whisper, his eyes opened and he said, “Look, Father! It is Christ the King!”
The daughter and I were in tears, and the nurse, who was a Baptist, said, “That is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
That’s a faith story. It really happened, but it also teaches us life lessons: the enduring love of a daughter, the reality of heaven, the power of faith, the strength of the sacraments, and the light of God’s love touching all in the room.
MAGIC AND MIRACLES
One of the elements of both fairy tales and faith stories is the supernatural. In fairy tales, the supernatural is magical. In faith stories, it is miraculous. Because the two seem very similar, it is easy to confuse magic and miracles.
Magic is an essential part of fairy tales. A frog turns into a prince, animal stalk, fairy godmothers turn pumpkins into coaches and mice into footmen, and wizards perform amazing feats to help the hero. The important thing to remember about magic is that it is always unnatural. In other words, it doesn’t go with nature — it goes against it. Pumpkins and coaches have nothing in common. Frogs and princes are not connected. Animals can’t really talk, and wolves do not turn into grandmothers.
Miracles, on the other hand, are natural. A miracle is God intervening in the natural order to reveal himself to us. Notice that he intervenes in the natural order, but he doesn’t do something unnatural. Here’s an example: when Jesus heals people, he is bringing something natural to fulfillment. In healing the person, he is restoring life and health. He is bringing that person to the fullness of who he was created to be — not turning him into something else.
When Moses provides manna in the wilderness and Jesus feeds the five thousand or turns water into wine, they are doing something natural: feeding people. They are multiplying the food supply miraculously to feed more people. Wheat grows. Fish breed. Rainwater grows into grapes to become wine. The multiplication of food is a natural process. The miracle is that it has been expanded by supernatural power — by God at work in the world.
Through these miracles God reveals himself. We see Christ as the one who forgives and heals, the one who provides our daily bread, and the one who gives us himself in bread and wine. The miracles, therefore, are a kind of faith story. They teach truth, and they really happened.
WAVE WALKING AND STILLING THE STORM
Some miracles seem to be more magical than others, though. These are called the “nature miracles.” What do we learn from Jesus calming the storm and walking on the water? Don’t these stories seem more like magic than miracles?
When we understand a miracle as God intervening in nature to reveal himself, and when we know the biblical background, we can see that these two miracles especially reveal exactly who Jesus is.
Jesus’ disciples would have known their Old Testament forward and backward, so when Jesus walks on the water, they would have remembered the passage from the Book of Job: “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads upon the back of the sea” (Job 9:8), and the verse from Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isaiah 43:16).
When he calmed the storm, Jesus revealed to his disciples that he was the Lord of Creation. They would not only have remembered the Spirit that brooded over the waters in the creation story from Genesis, but they also would have been reminded of this passage from the Book of Psalms:
In their distress they cried to the Lord, who brought them out of their peril; He hushed the storm to silence, the waves of the sea were stilled. They rejoiced that the sea grew calm, that God brought them to the harbor they longed for. (Psalm 107:28–30)
These stories that seem more like magic than miracles have a deeper reason and purpose. They are not performed by a witch or wizard in a fairy tale. Instead, they are signs that reveal Jesus Christ as the Lord of Creation and the incarnate Son of God.
MARVELS, MIRACLES, AND MYSTERY
In our age of superheroes, Marvel comics, and magical fantasy tales, it is important to distinguish between magic and miracles. It is all too easy for people to write off the stories of the Gospels because they find the miracles unbelievable. It is too easy to put Jesus into the same category as Gandalf the wizard or some other superhero or magical mystery man from a fairy tale.
Some who wish to take the Gospels seriously, therefore, have done their best to dismiss all the miracles as fairy tale magic. They want to reduce Jesus to a good teacher, a kind master, a martyr for his cause, and a wise mentor. The miracles of the Gospels, however, cannot be dismissed in such an easy fashion. The Gospel writers present them as real events — signs that revealed the true identity of Jesus as the Son of God. To dismiss the miracles because they seem difficult to believe is too easy.
Instead we need to distinguish between miracles and magic and realize that Jesus is not just a wonder-worker — his miracles are the sign of God’s presence among us. Jesus is the King of Creation who intervenes in the natural order to signal the truth that he is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”