Hieronymus Bosch: The Conjurer, 1475-1480
Last week I sat in a theater in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, with my wife and four-year-old son. We were waiting for Terry Evanswood’s magic show to start and sharing a comically small box of popcorn that my wife assured me I didn’t want to know the cost of. I was more worried, though, that my son’s attention span wouldn’t last the full hour and a half. It turned out I had nothing to worry about. He was mesmerized from the first second to the last. I spent more time watching his reactions than I did the performance.
In my son’s stunned expression, I find something that I long for, something that I believe we all long for in one degree or another—a sense of wonder. In an age and culture where the answer to virtually any question we can conceive is just a few taps and swipes away, wonder and unknowing are absent. It is one thing, however, to suspend disbelief for a couple hours to enjoy a magic show, and another to live a life believing anything blindly.
This past week was also Holy Week, the week in the church calendar that leads up to the death and eventual resurrection of the Christ. As the week progressed I found myself thinking more and more about my son’s reaction, about magic and wonder, and about the unbelievability of Jesus’ literal and physical resurrection.
The thing about stage and street magicians is that we know they are performing tricks. We know they are merely actors performing the role of a magician, which Evanswood spoke about during his performance as he shared his personal faith. We know magicians do not actually perform miracles. The magic is merely an illusion designed to mislead and entertain. We don’t believe they actually possess supernatural powers that transcend the physical laws of the universe. It is foolishness to believe so.
However, that is precisely the claim we make as Christians. It is simultaneously both the crux and the greatest difficulty of the Christian faith. We are asked to believe the most preposterous and audacious claim ever made: God, the supernatural creator of all that is seen and unseen, became a human being, suffered torment and trials, died for our misdeeds, and then literally came back to life so that we could be forgiven and welcomed into His perfect kingdom. As Paul told the church in Corinth, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The earliest magic trick recorded, depicted on tomb walls in Egypt over four thousand years ago, is the cups and balls. The effect is one everyone is familiar with: balls, or other small objects, appear to be move between hands, pockets, and overturned cups at the whim of the magician. The trick is so ubiquitous in western culture that we use one of the trick’s variants idiomatically; don’t waste your time trying to figure it out, it is just a shell game.
Magicians, I believe, have done themselves a disservice over the years by being overly secretive about their craft. I am sure there are those that watch performances and spend their time ‘burning’ the magician’s hands just so they can proudly announce they know how the trick was done. But I believe for each one of those, there are several who would likely be more impressed by the skill and talent required in the performance and complex manipulations. Just because I know that a piano makes music by mashing on the keys doesn’t mean that I can play a concerto, or that I wouldn’t enjoy the virtuosity of Mozart.
The cups and balls kept coming back to me this past week. I suppose it was the obvious corollary between an empty tomb and an empty cup. Several magicians, namely Jason Latimer and the duo of Penn and Teller, perform marvelous cups and balls routines with clear cups. Since I’ve seen those performances I find that I enjoy other performances of the cups and balls more because I understand the skill, talent, and time it took to produce the effect.
At one point during the performance my son’s jaw actually dropped open in surprise. He stared open mouthed as his eyes darted back and forth across the stage looking for something that could explain the seemingly impossible. Then he smiled a smile full of wonder and the joy of not knowing. I envy him.
There was no ‘trick’ to the empty tomb. Jesus wasn’t stolen away like a magician stealing a ball from under the cups, but there is mystery. The greatest mystery to answer the most audacious of claims. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
*About the title:
Hoc est corpus meum is a Latin phrase used by the Catholic Church during the blessing of the sacraments. It is generally believed that the words ‘hocus pocus’ originally came from these words, as the priest changed the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.