My little girl asked me if there is any such thing as magic.
Well, I believe the capacity of children for wonder is a holy gift, not to be trampled upon. We, like children, can learn to stand in awe before creation and before our life experiences or we can look at the same things with cynicism and skepticism. I have no desire to inject this cynicism or skepticism into my children, so I went on for some time describing the miracles and wonders worked by our Lord and his Saints.
There is a whole group of saints whom we call “thaumaturge” or “wonderworker”. You may have heard of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus. You certainly know Saint Nicholas, who is also called “the wonderworker.” Then there are the holy unmercenary wonderworkers Cosmas and Damian, the holy great martyr George the wonderworker, and on and on and on. There’s a wonderworker on our calendar probably every other week.
So, with all of these wonderworkers, where are the wonders? A better question, I think, is where is our wonder? We can learn about that from our children. I believe that wonders and miracles are happening around us every day all the time if we would open our eyes to them.
Now, perhaps it is necessary to make a distinction between magic and miracles. We do not call Jesus a magician. And a few references to magic in the scripture are in connection to rather nefarious characters like Simon the Magician. Magic is used by them for self-promotion. And magic, certainly, is sometimes used to refer, on the one hand, to tricks or deceptions, and, on the other hand, to surprising feats performed with the aid of spirits. As has been rightly observed, not all spirits are holy. Magic tricks can be fun and entertaining. While magic of a more diabolical kind is of course something to be shunned and abhorred. In neither of these senses do Jesus or his wonderworkers do magic.
Still, we can overdo this distinction. Let us not abandon our childlike wonder while we pursue fine distinctions. And remember the Magi, whom God led to the Christ Child through their wonder at a marvelous star. And we do call the saints thaumaturge, as I mentioned earlier. And that same word is sometimes also used to describe magicians in the ancient world.
There may after all be room to say to a child that God has created a magical world, that is, a world to be wondered at and full of miracles.
We hear of one of these miracles today. The feeding of thousands with five loaves and two fish. For no other reason, as far as I can tell, than that they are hungry and that he has compassion on them, Jesus gives to the thousands who have followed him into a lonely place a wonderful picnic – a picnic to be wondered at. Looking at this as an example may help to reveal to us the quality and purpose of true miracles as opposed to magic tricks.
The workings of this miracle are mysterious – or perhaps even secret. They’re not performed in a dazzling or showy way the way a magician might on stage. Jesus simply takes the small amount of food, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to distribute to the people. There is one thing to note about this, he works the miracle through his people. They cooperate, too, in a rather childlike way. Sure, they raised their objections, but now they obey him and walk out into a crowd of thousands with the intention of feeding them with so little. That’s a childlike step out in faith. Or anyway a kind reckless willingness to be thought of as a fool. Do we have that willingness and childlike trust in our Lord?
After his disciples carry the pieces into the crowd, the next thing we hear is that all eat and are satisfied. The mechanism of the multiplication is not described at all. It’s really only clear that there has been a multiplication after the fact, when the twelve baskets of pieces left over are gathered.
In the movie Millions, St. Peter appears in a vision to a young boy who’s trying to do the right thing with a big pile of money he’s found. In the movie, St. Peter says,
“This kid comes up to us with these loaves and fishes. And Jesus blessed them and passes the plate round. Now the first person he passes it to passes it on. He doesn’t take anything he just passes it on. Do you know why? Because he had a piece of lamb hidden in his pocket. And as he’s passing the fish, he sneaks a bit of the meat out and pretends he’s taking it off the plate. You see what I’m saying? And the next person exactly the same story…. As the plate goes around, they all got their own food out and started to share. And that plate went all the way around and back to Jesus and still got the fish and the loaves on it…. Jesus says, ‘What happened?’ And I just said, ‘Miracle.’ And at first I thought I’d fooled him. But now I see, it was a miracle. One of his best. This little kid stood up and everybody there just got bigger. That kid wasn’t planning on doing a miracle. He wasn’t planning anything except lunch. Something that looks like a miracle turns out to be dead simple.”
Well, that’s one interpretation of the event. The mechanism of multiplication is, as I say, not disclosed in the gospel. Further I’d go so far as to agree that inspiring generosity in a crowd of thousands would be a kind of miracle. We could do with more of that generosity in our world today. Every time I celebrate Litija, which I do at Great Vespers for all Great Feasts and Feasts with a Vigil, I pray,
“Lord Jesus Christ Our God, you blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and fed the five thousand. Likewise bless these loaves, wheat, wine, and oil and multiply them in this city and through your whole world.”
You see, we’re imitating Christ at Vespers. We bless the loaves, we break them, we ask him to multiply them in our city and the whole world. Where is the miracle?
Let me tell you, he has performed the multiplication! It’s done! Do you know, that this wonderful world in which we live produces more than enough food to feed all of its more than seven and a half billion inhabitants?
Why then are some going hungry? Because the people of the world are failing to do as the disciples did and carry the particles to the hungry. It’s inexcusable. It is a failure of generosity. We destroy food. We destroyed even more food during this pandemic, while people go hungry. Jesus invites us to participate in the miracle. And he expects our participation. He works his miracles through our participation.
This miracle of the loaves and the fishes also points to the miracle we’re about to witness hear it in the church – the miracle of the Eucharist. The bread which is the body of Christ is being multiplied throughout the world on this day of the Lord to feed his faithful throughout the world. We are going to witness a miracle. We would do well to stand in awe before it, with childlike faith. To look upon it with wonder. And to take inspiration from it to participate in the miracle Jesus is inviting us into. To become his instruments. To become those through whom he works his miracles. Our participation is as simple as us offering whatever we have however small. Be like the child who offers you a bite of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Be like a small boy offering five loaves and two fish. If we obey Jesus and offer this, he will multiply it and we will delight in his wonderworking through us.