Miracles vs. Magic

I just finished listening to a course on the Great Figures of the New Testament, taught by Vanderbilt University Divinity School Professor Amy-Jill Levine, generously lent to me by my friend Harry. Professor Levine is a gifted lecturer and I’ve both enjoyed and learned much from her talks on the “great figures” she selected for inclusion in the course.

One of the last figures Professor Levine addresses (the last two are Paul and Jesus, each of whom gets two lectures in the series) is Philip, who was appointed with Stephen to serve at table, ensuring that food distribution to the widows. Philip fled Jerusalem at the start of the persecution during which Stephen was killed.

One of the episodes discussed is Philip’s encounter with Simon Magus. In connection with that story, Professor Levine raises the question of how one distinguishes between miracle and magic. What makes what Simon does magic or sorcery and what Peter and John do miracles or “signs and wonders.”

It is an interesting question. From the point of view of the observer, there is no difference between magic and miracles. Both usually break normal scientific laws and influence things in what appears to be a non-natural manner.

But it is clear from accounts like this one that the Bible treats miracles and magic as being different things and I think it is correct to do so.

There is an enormous difference between the intention and purpose behind miracles and magic. One commentator put the difference this way: “Magic intends to astonish, to draw attention to its own prowess, to put the focus on the power itself. Miracle intends to use the exercise of power to benefit another, to address the real needs of one human being or a group of human beings.” As I wrote in a recent post, Jesus’ refused to exercise his power to feed himself when tempted to do so by Satan; Jesus, however, showed no reluctance use his power to feed the multitudes.

Magic is about the magician’s power and desire. It serves the aims of the magician. Miracles are about the power and will of God.


Ask for the Miracle

Yesterday morning, I stopped on my way to work to go to Mass at Christ the King. The first reading was one I love – the revelation to Samuel in Chapter 3 of the first book of Samuel.

The passage recounts a time when “young Samuel was minister to the Lord under Eli.” Samuel awakens from his sleep three times when he hears a voice calling him and thinks it is Eli. The first two times, Eli simply tells him to go back to sleep. By the third time, Eli, recognizing that the voice is that of God, instructs Samuel how to respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

I’ve prayed with this passage many times and, even when not in prayer, find myself mouthing the words Eli instructs Samuel to respond to God’s call – Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

But yesterday, in his homily, Fr. Dale Korogi focused on a line in that passage that I had never fastened on in my prayer – one of the final lines of the passage: “And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” He talked about the promise and the fidelity of God those words implied – God hears and listens to all of our prayers.

He spoke about Jake Jablonski, a local high school hockey player who was seriously injured during a recent game. He severely bruised his spinal cord and it is unclear the extent to which his paralysis will be permanent. Student in the local schools, as well as others, are all praying for a miracle.

Fr. Dale admitted that the rational part of him has concern for these students. Surely their prayers won’t result in the miracle they hope for and won’t they be disappointed when it doesn’t?

But reflecting on this passage, he said, makes him realize that the students are doing exactly the right thing. We should ask for the miracle. We, of course, have no control over what will happen, and we recognize that God sometimes answers our prayers in ways different from what we hoped. Nonetheless, we should always approach God with expectation. With childlike expectant faith, knowing that none of our words fall to the ground.

Ask big, as St. Ignatius sometimes said. Ask for the miracle. And then leave it in God’s hands.

Looking for Miracles in All the Wrong Places

I just read a piece by Margaret Silf in America Magazine (as usual I’m behind in my magazine reading) that talks about miracles. Silf makes an interesting observation. Perhaps, she says, the problem we have with miracles “is that we try to get at them from the wrong end. We strive to see the end of the miracle – the great transformation, the unexpected cure, the new life where there was none before. But we very rarely notice the start of the miracle.”

Because we are looking in the wrong place, Silf continues, we fail to see the “almost invisible beginnings of the miraculous all around us.” In contrast, if we stop looking for the big, final, monumental thing we call a miracle, we will be able to see “for example, how a word of encouragement turns a whole life around from despair to hope or how an apparent misfortune can open our minds to fresh perspectives and change the direction of our lives.”

As I read her words, the thought that came was that if we just sit around looking for the big bang, we not only miss the first signs in front of our eyes, but we miss the opportunity to participate in the creation of miracles ourselves.

Sigh. Sure, there is a part of me that would like to say, “Hey God, how about a miracle here so no one is starving and no one goes to war and all those with diseases are cured, and….” It would sure make things a lot easier for us. But that is not the way it seems to work.

I had a bumper sticker on my car that read “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Perhaps the better message is, “Create the miracle you wish to see in the world.”