There we stood, the parish priest, the janitor, and me. The sink in the newly-renovated parish kitchen was emitting a gentle jet of water, straight up and out of the base of the faucet, which gracefully landed—thankfully—in the sink. The three of us stood in silence for a while, gaping, amazed that a brand-new sink would be broken already. The priest said to the janitor, “Well Joe, do you think you can fix it?” Joe was a college student, not really a trained janitor, and he said, “I think I might make it worse.” The priest turned to me and said, “Well, Kevin, you were raised on a farm. Can you fix it?” I said I knew nothing about plumbing. Hoping to make a joke, I said, “Maybe you could offer it a blessing, and it will go back to normal.” The priest turned, gave me a wry look, and said, “Oh, Kevin. That’s not how it works. There is no magic.” He called a plumber.
Looking back, I think there might have been some truth in my little joke. His answer—that there was no magic—was absolutely right. We don’t need to teach impressionable college students that priests have magic hands. But at the time, his answer was disappointing to me, somehow. As children, we live in a world that is enchanted, filled with Love and God and possibility. We’re taught that God can act in our world, and we believe. As we grow up, that vertical connection, which pulls God down to our level and raises us up to God’s level, that connection…flattens. Our world becomes disenchanted, and we begin to think more about what is reasonable about our faith, instead of what is magical about our faith.
I love that we get to hear readings from Acts during this season. In my first year of seminary, a classmate joked that “The Acts of the Apostles” should really be called “The Acts of Saints Peter and Paul.” Our professor answered, “Well, it should really be called ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit.’” Peter says it in our first reading, “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” Why are you looking at us?They seem to say, We have no magic hands.
And yet, we long for magic. One only has to look at the New Age Movement to see that people want spirituality, and so we try, through our own power and piety, to fill our lives with that which might reconstruct that vertical connection to the Holy; to make our worlds a little less flat. And whether it be going to yoga, or putting our hopes in Eastern spirituality or Celtic spirituality, through our own power and piety we think we can put ourselves in touch with the holy. We can adopt a piety, through our own power, to bring God a little close.
I was talking to a colleague recently, who asked, “Do you remember how busy we were before the pandemic? We used to do so much. When the first lockdown happened, so much of what we were doing just stopped dead, and it was only then that we realized that so little of it mattered. No one missed it. No one needed it. We just did it to feel busy, to feel something, and we pretended like it was making a difference.” Those programs were replaced with programs that were needed, in the midst of a troubled year. After they slowed down, she said, they could actually hear the Spirit, and see the needs of their community. And they acted…or, the Spiritacted through them. I think we like to exercise our power and piety because it helps us to feel like we’re leaning into God, but once we stopped racing to and fro, thinking the world might collapse if we stopped, we see: there was no magic in our own power. We have no magic hands.
Easter is a season which is the most challenging to us, I think, because it confronts us with the magic all-too-closely. We come face-to-face with the unreasonable and we expect to hear each other say, “I believe.” How can we do that when we also expect to hear each other say, “There is no magic.”
The “magic” of Easter might be better described in the old sense, as “mysterion,” in the Greek, “mystery” in our own language. Now, in the religious sense, “mystery” doesn’t mean finding clues and solving puzzles, and it doesn’t quite mean the other definition, a problem which cannot be solved due to a lack of evidence. The early church held a different definition, and the Orthodox have maintained it—in fact, what we call the Sacraments, they call the Mysteries. We can find the magic in our faith by looking closely at those things which we experience in our worship. As Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Our experience of [the sacraments] exceeds our understanding of them.” The experiences of baptism, receiving communion, bowing our heads for a blessing, repeating the Creed week after week, listening to the lessons, singing the hymns, praying for the world.
These things are not mysterious because we don’t know them, or can’t know them. They are mysterious because we can spend our whole lives experiencing them, and come to know more and more. They are inexhaustible in their knowability. It is a well that we can continually draw water from, knowing it will never run dry. And for me, that is the magic of our faith. When we look around the world and realize that its knowability is inexhaustible, that what we can learn about ourselves and each other is inexhaustible, that what we can come to understand about death and resurrection is inexhaustible, that what we can come to know about God is inexhaustible, and that our experiences of these truths will always outpace our ability to explain them with words. That is a world that is truly wonderful and mysterious…and magical.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog