My older brother and I came home one night in 1967 to an empty house. I was 11, my brother 18. No one there but a cop who told us our mother had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. I feared the worst but prayed for the best—that she would magically come home and everything would be OK.
She died anyway.
I didn’t get the magic I prayed for. I got a miracle instead.
There’s an important distinction between those two things, and that’s an important theme in this Sunday’s readings. Look what happens to Elijah in the first one from the Book of Kings (1 kgs 19:9a, 11-13a.) He stands on Mt. Horeb to have an encounter with God. He’s met by a mighty wind, a rumbling earthquake and blazing fire—none of which struck him as divine. Then…
“After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
Elijah expected God’s appearance to be big and magical. What he got was small and miraculous. He received what he needed, not what he wanted, and as a result, his life was changed.
He received faith. In that whispering he knew God’s spirit was within him always and that he had the power to share that spirit with others. In our second reading (rom 9:1-5) Paul tells the Romans he yearns to share that spirit with them but he fears that his own people, the Israelites, will reject it, and he despairs:
“My conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people.”
Later in the same letter he worries that his own people lack the faith that has been adopted by the Gentiles:
“Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have achieved it, that is, righteousness that comes from faith; but Israel, who pursued the law of righteousness, did not attain to that law. Why not? Because they did it not by faith, but as if it could be done by works. They stumbled over the stone that causes stumbling.”
Jesus’s disciples were constantly stumbling over that stone, even after all they had seen and done with their master. Our gospel reading (mt 14:22-33) has Peter witnessing Christ walk on the sea toward him, and asking for the same ability so he can meet his Master halfway on the water’s surface.
“Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
I think Peter doubted because he thought this was magic, not a miracle. In reviewing my own experience as an 11-year-old praying for the magical return of my mother, deep down I doubted that could ever happen. As a 57-year-old man, I now realize that magic’s power depends on its truth remaining hidden. A miracle’s power depends on its truth being exposed. The truth of magic is that it’s a trick of timing. The truth of a miracle is its reality doesn’t depend on time. It depends on our faith in the eternal presence of God. And with that faith I know my mother is alive—as all are alive in the whispering truth of the spirit that calls our soul home.