A Deeper Magic
In his Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck wrote, “The last few years have been painful. I don’t know whether they have hurt permanently or not.”
It was January, 1951. World War II had ended just half a decade earlier. The globe was still settling into difficult—and hopeful—new realities. Families grieved the loss of loved ones. The Cold War had begun.
“Certainly [the last few years] have changed me,” Steinbeck wrote, “I would have been stone if they had not.” We might say as much about the last year and all of 2021 thus far.
And now we come to the middle of February, having lived the prequel to Lent, with Ash Wednesday only a few days away. In the speed and lag of pandemic time—what day is it, again?—the songs of Christmas still ring in my ears: “Sleep in heavenly peace.” “Peace on earth and mercy mild.” “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
To speak of peace in times of war and tumult and crisis and violence can seem foolish. Hopelessly nostalgic. As out of touch with reality as the video that went viral last week of a woman filming her workout in Myanmar as tanks and armored vehicles amassed behind her. As the great writer Octavia Butler put it, “The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any other kind.”
The prophet Jeremiah cautions against those who lie about how deep the injury goes: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11 NIV).
The biblical prophets speak of a coming king who will bring true and lasting peace, not through war or violence, but through justice and mercy and righteousness. As N.T. Wright puts it, “When God wants to take charge of the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the poor and the meek.”
The peace we need comes from God alone.
In Isaiah 9, the prophet proclaims that the instruments and weapons of hatred—every boot used in battle, every garment rolled in blood—will be fuel for the fire. In the coming kingdom of God the trappings of war will be so useless that they will serve only to keep us and our neighbor warm in the winter’s chill.
But the battle lines of violence and fear, suspicion and bitterness, death and destruction, are not just out there. They run right through the center of each beating human heart. Through mine. Through yours. Through our lowest impulses and our secret sins as we choose who we will serve, this day and every day. As we choose, much more often than we should, to serve ourselves and our idols.
Isaiah proclaims the truth: the peace we need comes from God alone. We cannot manufacture it, educate ourselves into it, vote it into office, or violently bring it to pass. As W. H. Auden wrote in his “Christmas Oratorio,” “Nothing can save us that is possible.”
This peace comes to us in different clothing than we expect. It owns no fighter jets. It has no defense budget. It does not even engage in debates on Twitter. It comes, like poet Carl Sandburg’s fog, “on little cat feet.” Meek and mild, holding a cup of cold water in the guise of a child.
The Prince of Peace is coming.
We may look around and ask, where is this peace? These last painful months have laid bare our many foibles and failings. The word apocalypse actually means revelation, and the uncovering of so much so quickly these past months has left me breathless. I thought I knew my country. I thought I knew my neighbors. I thought I knew myself.
And yet in this bloody and broken world, birds sing out the truth and mountains point to the truth and poets and prophets and artists hold up their words and their images and their paintbrushes and beckon.
The Prince of Peace is coming. He has come, and he will come again. The peace that transforms our understanding is gently, quietly, persistently drawing ever closer.
When all looks lost, when all looks cold and still and hopeless and done for, when it’s already the depth of winter and we are looking down the long tunnel of an aching Lent, the seeds that God scattered when all seemed lost begin to sprout tiny roots. When evil looks as though it finally has the upper hand, there is, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “a deeper magic at work.”
This winter a preteen girl was shot and killed in Chicago. A few days later, her grieving, terrified brother was placed in a foster home—the home of a friend of ours. The following week he turned nine years old and looked at a table laden with presents. Presents for him.
“I’ve never had presents,” he said. “No one has ever sung me happy birthday before.”
A birthday party doesn’t come close to rewriting nine years of poverty and the violent death of his sister. But it is a little bit of the deeper magic. It is a little glimpse of the kingdom of God come to earth, the kingdom of God growing stronger, the kingdom of God bursting forth, a servant of God saying yes. The peace of birthday presents. The peace of cake. The world beginning to be made new.
Octavia Butler continues, “The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any other kind, and yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees.”
His word is love and his gospel is peace.