In August 1965 the Lovin’ Spoonful released Do You Believe in Magic and the song quickly sprang to the top of the pop charts. So, do you believe in magic? As the lyrics of the song go, “believe in the magic that can set you free.” Magic, of course, relies upon sleight of hand and illusion to give the impression that something supernatural has taken place.
As Christians the more appropriate question is whether we believe in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ and his power to perform miracles as he did in this morning’s Gospel reading from Saint Luke where, moved with pity, Jesus touched the coffin containing the widow’s son and said, “Young man, I tell you, arise.” Rise, the dead man did, and “Jesus gave him to his mother.” The power of God’s grace in His Son Jesus Christ caused this young, dead man to rise from the dead.
The people who had witnessed this were taken with fear. “A great prophet has arisen in our midst.” “God has visited his people,” they said. God had worked a great miracle. They saw that God had entered into human history.
There are many types of miracles that God works. Saint Paul’s conversion can only be considered a miracle. In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul acknowledges his former way of life as a persecutor of the church and how he tried to destroy her. We also know from the Acts of the Apostles that Saul, as he had been known, was present when the mob stoned the first deacon and first martyr Saint Stephen. In fact, the members of the mob who did the actual stoning placed their robes at his feet. This was a sign of Saul’s authority in the community. So, while Saul may not have thrown a stone, the mob was certainly stoning the good deacon Stephen with Saul’s full knowledge and consent. It’s not a stretch to call Saul a terrorist. Yet Saul, now Paul, accepted God’s loving mercy and grace. After his conversion, Paul returned to Damascus and went on to Jerusalem, to Rome and Corinth, to Galatia and Ephesus proclaiming the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles only to be revered as one of the Prime Apostles.
About twelve years before the Lovin’ Spoonful came out with their hit song, Do You Believe in Magic, a troubled twenty-something Frenchman by the name of Jacques Fesch had it in his head to rob a money changer on a street in Paris. He had already left his wife and young daughter, and he wanted the money to buy a boat so he could sail to the Polynesian islands to escape his difficult circumstances and live a life of hedonistic pleasure. Well, the robbery went bad, and Jacques – who had no prior criminal record –fatally shot a police officer. He was arrested, thrown into jail, convicted of his crime, and sentenced to death by beheading in 1957. What happened in the three years between his arrest and execution is nothing short of a miracle.
Jacques grew up in very difficult circumstances. Though he had a Catholic education, his father had a big negative influence on him. Jacques wrote that his father was very: “proud, sarcastic, and cynical” and an atheist who “felt a disgust with life.” He described family life as “utterly wretched…[T]here was no respect, no love.” Jacques own life sounded not too different. He married Pierrette after she became pregnant, and he did not love her.
All that changed for Jacques when he went to prison where he began his journey from atheism to God, a journey took about one year. He was blessed to have the assistance of three persons – the prison chaplain who visited him and loaned him books; his attorney, a devout Christian who saw his work as a ministry; and a monk, Brother Thomas, with whom Jacques exchanged many letters. One point that should not be lost: Jacques was connected with Brother Thomas by his wife Pierrette who never abandoned him in spite of what he had done to her.
Listen to what he wrote to Brother Thomas after his conversion: “an immense grief and an immense joy sweep over the soul together…for the first time I have wept tears of joy, knowing with certitude that God has forgiven me and that now Christ lives in me through my suffering and my love…I so need His love, strength and compassion.”
One week before his execution, at the age of twenty-seven, Jacques wrote to his Mama, “It is not for me that you should weep, but for sins that offend God. As for me, I am happy. Jesus is calling me to Himself, and great graces have been given to me.”
The day before his execution, Jacques wrote to his Mama, “God has given me the great grace of drawing me to Himself, and when you read these lines I shall be looking upon our Lord Jesus Christ…Remain calm…try to plunge your sorrow in the love of Jesus, who waits only for your appeal to come and console you.”
And to Brother Thomas, on that same night he wrote, “I wait in the night and in peace…I wait for Love.”
Jacques’ conversion gave him a new life in Christ. He was beheaded on October 1st, 1957 – the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, the Theotokos in our Byzantine Church. (Padre Pio used to say there is no such thing as a coincidence.)
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus taught us the Golden Rule to “[d]o to others as you would have them do to you.” He raised the bar when he said it’s no big deal to love someone who loves you. Even a bully can love a bully! He tells us to …love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.
It was only because of the Father’s mercy that Saul of Tarsus was able to receive God’s grace and live a life in Christ to become the Apostle Paul. Had you been an early Christian witnessing the stoning of the first martyr Stephen and seen Saul standing there watching approvingly, might you have had a difficult time accepting the new Paul? Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
It was only because of the Father’s mercy that Jacques Fesch was able to receive God’s grace and live a life in Christ to become a prodigal son returning to the Father after years of being an atheist. After the cause for sainthood for Jacques was opened by the Archbishop of Paris, many complained that Jacques was a mere murderer. These people were blinded by their lack of mercy. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
It was the Father’s mercy perfectly manifested in Jesus who gazed into the eyes of the grieving widow with pity – yes, with compassion and mercy – that brought her only son back to life. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
What miracles might be possible in your life if you let Jesus embrace you in his mercy and let His Holy Spirit show you the way? Remember, we’re not talking magic. We’re talking miracles born out of God’s great mercy, He who is perfect love, He who entered into human history because of His great love for each and every one of us.
By Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck