Who Stole the Magic?

Reading Time: 4 mins

Without the sacraments, God’s grace is simply an artifact behind a glass-case in a museum. We might be able to describe and even admire it, but we never get firsthand access to it.

“Who stole the magic?” It’s an increasingly relevant question as we survey our religious landscape. If magic is understood (according to Merriam Webster) as “giving a feeling of enchantment” or “the use of means believed to have supernatural power over natural forces,” then historical, orthodox Christianity is as magical as it gets. In fact, we even have a word for this sort of magic; this sort of means: sacrament.

According to Martin Luther’s Small Catechism used in my tradition, a sacrament is “a holy act, instituted by Christ, in which by visible means, He gives and confirms His invisible grace.” (1) In other words, a Sacrament is more than a sign. It is more than a metaphor. It is more than an illustration which clarifies some deeper spiritual reality. A sacrament not only symbolizes but delivers. Let’s be clear: something is actually happening in a sacrament, not merely being spoken about. In baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God is bringing himself near to us in a unique, awe-inspiring, wonder-inducing sort of way, bestowing his gifts in normal, everyday things that we can taste and touch. When all five of our senses conspire to tell us that bread is just bread, wine is just wine, and water is just water—nothing more—and we protest: “No! This can’t actually be happening,” God’s response rings down from on high, “Yes. It can. And it is. Take. Eat. This is my body. Drink. This is my blood. You are forgiven. Because I say so.” When our stubborn hearts insist that magic isn’t possible and that the supernatural dare not inhabit physical things, God tells us otherwise.

So how did we get here? How did we arrive at a version of Christianity stripped of magic?

If it is taken as a truism that—per Zwingli—“the finite is not capable of the infinite,” then the unavoidable result is a religion where God’s interaction with human beings is limited to the spiritual realm. Unskinned and excarnated, his ghostly, gnostic presence is barred from inhabiting anything tangible or earthly. His touch cannot penetrate the impervious barrier between the supernatural and natural. What this means for us is that God is no longer graspable in any particular object, time, or place, since his power is only operative in an ethereal sense which has no touchpoint in actual human experience. In the terminology of philosopher Charles Taylor, there are no “charged objects.” It’s like Beauty and the Beast without the rose. Cinderella without the glass slipper. Aladdin without the lamp. Harry Potter without the wand. Frodo without the ring. James and the Giant Peach without the peach. This is a religion where the supernatural in all of its mystery and wonder never really meets us skin-to-skin. In short, it’s a world without magic.

Fleming Rutledge has said that the greatest enemy to sound Scriptural interpretation is biblical literalism. Her point (arguably) is well-taken. We often approach God’s Word as if it were another textbook to be parsed; more information to be processed, understood, and mastered. This is an Enlightenment-fueled drive toward rationality, where Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is king, and where mystery can be explained away. In fact, it must be explained away, since the very idea of mystery impedes our insatiable quest for human omniscience. The concept of a sacrament, then—a place where God actually meets us to physically deliver his divine gifts—cannot be stomached. The supernatural has no place in the natural. The infinite has no place in the finite. Bread, water, wine—these are places where God is categorically fenced off from inhabiting. Aslan cannot roam free. Cair Paravel cannot stand. And Lucy’s cordial cannot bring healing. There’s no place for magic in a “Christianity” like this, one that bears little resemblance to Narnia.

There are, however, other ways to approach Scripture. If God’s Word has actual power to create, to destroy, to heal, to make saints out of sinners, then it becomes something more than an ancient bundle of claims and assertions to be analyzed and decided upon. Instead, it becomes the means by which God disseminates his saving grace to us. His Word becomes a place where heaven touches earth, where the immortal, invisible God becomes incarnate, and where divine utterances make unbelievable things happen. This is a world where not everything is what it seems and our senses are not infallible. There is space for mystery and magic in a world like this, where mudpies heal blind eyes (John 9:1-7), the River Jordan cures leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14), ravens carry life-giving bread in their beaks (2 Kings 17:2-6), wine brings forgiveness (Matt. 26:26-28), simple H20 drowns sinners and raises them to new life (Rom. 6:3-4). And all by the power of his Word, which is not just informative, but creative (Gen. 1:3). Without the sacraments, God’s grace is simply an artifact behind a glass-case in a museum. We might be able to describe and even admire it, but we never get firsthand access to it.

At the risk of mixing too many metaphors, it’s like this. Imagine a massive lake filled with life-giving water. Two miles away, a parched cornfield desperately needs moisture or it will die. What is to be done? An irrigation ditch must be dug to transport the water from the lake to the field, where it can access the roots of the corn and cause the plants to grow and flourish. Of course, the ditch is valueless in and of itself—nothing more than silt and sand and clay and rock. But since one end of the channel is tapped into the source of life (the lake), it now conveys streams of living water and becomes invaluable to the survival of the field. The analogy may be incomplete, but the correspondence is clear. The lake is God’s grace, the parched field is us, and the channel is the sacraments. In a world without that channel, grace will always be out of reach.

There is a reason that the healing beds of Rivendell and the magical wardrobes of Spare Oom strike the deepest chords in the human heart. These are the places where the eternal and temporal collide, where the divine crashes into the human, and where God condescends to us. The sacraments make such a world possible.

There is magic close at hand. The only question is: do we have the eyes to see it?

(1) An Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism, ed. David Rinden and Warren Olsen. Fergus Falls: Faith and Fellowship Press, 1992, 123.