One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows a white-bearded gentleman with a shock of hair cleft neatly down the center. He is standing, looking in a bathroom mirror with a stern expression on his face and his arms thrust stiffly out to each side in a dramatic gesture. The caption reads: Moses parts his hair.
Besides being funny, this cartoon illustrates a very common confusion in our modern culture: the inability to distinguish miracle from magic and the consequent notion that God is or ought to be a Cosmic Director of Special Effects. Such a conception of God is very common and very ancient. It is also, to a certain degree, very understandable, seeing as how God himself seems to have condescended to our expectations on a number of occasions in the Old Testament, since that was all we could grasp. Thus we find God, particularly in the book of Exodus, working miracles which were, at first, not readily distinguishable from the sorts of things the Egyptians were able to do “by their magic arts” (Ex 7:22; 8:3). However, as time goes on God begins to lead Israel away from this conception of himself just as he lead them away from Egypt. He refused, for example, to allow his Ark of the Covenant to be treated like a lucky rabbit’s foot. When the Israelites dragged it into battle as a kind of talisman, they got trashed by the Philistines (1 Sm 4:1-11).
Old habits die hard however. And we are not really very different than ancient Israel. It is often as hard for Christians to separate miracle from magic as it was for the ancient Jews. And not least because, as Christians–and particularly as Catholics–we are constantly reminded that we really do live in a world of wonders: a world where God has truly become man, where blind men have actually had their sight miraculously restored, where the lame have suddenly leapt up in full view of a crowd, where stone cold dead corpses have been restored to life and where bread and wine are daily and hourly transformed into the body, blood, spirit, soul and divinity of God the Incarnate Son.
Strange world! And not, it is tempting to think, all that different from being a world ruled by a Director of Special Effects.
Perhaps this is why the early apocryphal gospels simply could not restrain themselves from adorning their tales of Jesus with all manner of Spielbergian special effects. Here is the Infancy Story of Thomas with the child Jesus transforming mudballs into birds with a clap of his hands and striking naughty playmates dead with a word. There is the Gospel of Peter‘s wild and overdrawn spectacle of a Resurrection in full view of guards and disciples, complete with giant angels and a Jesus whose height overtops the clouds. All very spectacular, like the visions of recent TV evangelists. It answers all our expectations of a “Far Side” view of God.
It does not, however, answer our hearts.
What then, does? Look at the canonical gospels. Just like the apocrypha, the canonical gospels make an extraordinary claim: they say that the infinitely powerful Being who created the universe became a drooling baby on the eastern border of the Roman Empire during the waning years of Augustus Caesar. They assert that this God-man was a teenager during the period of rebellion among Roman troops in Gaul recorded by Tacitus. They claim that He ran afoul of the authorities and was executed on a vague charge of being a public nuisance when Pontius Pilate was military governor of Judea and Caiaphas was High Priest. And they assert that this same man was seen by his followers after his death; not as a vaporous spook, but as a touchable human being who ate fish and whose feet made a noise when they tramped the floor
All of this, say the gospels, has caused a revolution in the way the world is. After these events, absolutely the entire universe is a different place. Some cosmic wheel has turned, some unthinkable crisis has climaxed and passed and, as a result, everything is forever altered. This is the burden of the New Testament. This is the turning point in all things visible and invisible which the apostles preach and die for. This, they say, is what everything in all of human history — all the blood, smoke, parted seas, plagues, miracles and prophecies — was all about. Given such colossal significance, then, what does the New Testament report that Jesus Christ, the Risen Savior of the World, did at the climax of this cosmic drama?
He went for a walk.
That’s it. He walks with his friends. No flying carpet rides. No parted seas. Just… walking and talking (Lk 24:15).
What does it all mean? It means that God reveals himself in human way. It means that special effects are not at the heart of the cosmic drama, relationship is — human relationship.
This is but one of the reasons that so much modern jargon about “spirituality” and “personal empowerment” is so utterly wrong-headed. For it fancies that the goal of life is to escape from the ordinary human relationships of dishes and diapers (“free ourselves” is the jargon that is used) and pass on into some sort of impersonal “self-empowerment” of career and “wellness” followed (if all goes swimmingly) by our absorption (after our painless euthanasia death) into some ethereal, disembodied, ecstatic existence untroubled by interference from those who are not Spiritually Advanced like us. Such a mentality looks for Life, not in pedestrian things like water, bread, wine or our neighbor, but in awesome displays of power, money, psychic abilities, hubbub and general fizz — both material and spiritual.
It was against just such a notion of “Spirituality as Special Effects” that St. John warned when he said that anyone who runs ahead and does not remain in the teaching does not have God (2 Jn 9). For the Christian life is not a life of running ahead nor of leaving the hoi polloi behind nor of being Advanced. It is a walk: a walk among the blind, the lame, the poor and the unpleasant. It is to come alongside those who talk too much, whose noses run, who bore us and whose shoes, filthy from the walk, we are not worthy to untie. In short, the Christian life is about living love in the ordinary. “For this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, as you heard from the beginning, in which you should walk” (2 Jn 6).
This is the meaning of that walk long ago on the road to Emmaus, when the first of billions of souls were healed by a few quiet words spoken without fanfare, when God drew alongside us for the long haul, when the feet of him who brings good news, pierced by our sin and healed by the Father’s love, took up their steady pace beside us again, that we might walk all the way to Heaven.