Wingardium LevioSAH?

I have been known to enjoy fantasy novels and films, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. Modern fairy tales can be a fun and recreational escape provided we remember the difference between fantasy and reality. A well-made fantasy world has cultures, languages, religions… and in many cases an internally-consistent system for how its “magic” or “technology” works.

I am often disappointed when I find in a novel or film that the effectiveness of magic depends entirely on precise execution of gestures and words. In “Harry Potter,” correctly pronouncing the nonsensical words “wingardium leviosa” makes a desired object levitate, as long as the speaker is a wizard. This result occurs regardless of whether the wizard understands the language from which the phrase comes, or not.

The wizard is not praying to a wonderworking entity who may be thought to accomplish the miracle. Apparently the universe itself is consciously listening – or, like Amazon Alexa, some nonsentient process tests every word spoken (and every gesture) according to some predetermined rule, in order to identify commands and trigger scripted responses. (In fact, JK Rowling has missed the opportunity to write about who programmed the universe to respond to specific commands, and how those scripts might be modified by a wizard with an admin account.)

Either way, there is no personal element or interaction involved in this sort of “magic.” Any wizard may say a particular incantation, accompanied by prescribed gestures, and the miracle happens because of the work performed.

In Roman Catholicism, there is a concept that miracles occur ex opere operato. (Not Harry Potter in this case but Latin for “from the work performed”) meaning that the prescribed words and gestures, if performed correctly and with faith, make the thing happen: ordination, Eucharist, baptism, etc. The Modern Catholic dictionary’s definition of this Latin term says that “sacraments are instrumental causes of grace.”

That sounds oddly impersonal and mechanical to Orthodox ears, and I would assume I am misunderstanding it — except that recently we read about a Roman Catholic priest who baptized people with one word wrong, and all his baptisms are now said to have been ineffective! Apparently no one can be born again of water and spirit if a single word is incorrect. (“Wingardium levioSAH?”)

By contrast, in the Church, sacraments are formalized ways of praying and catechizing, built around our personally asking the living God to act. Grace, we understand, is God in action and is not caused or created by anything priests do or say.

As a priest, I don’t make you born-again when I immerse you and anoint with myrrh, any more than I make bread into Jesus or make water into something wonderworking and grace-bearing. My words and actions are all in support of the request made to God and the expected sovereign personal intervention (Grace) of the Holy Spirit.

So we pray “Make this bread the precious body of thy Christ, and what is in this cup the precious blood of thy Christ, changing them by thy Holy Spirit” and “That this water may be hallowed by the might, and operation, and descent of the Holy Spirit; let us pray to the Lord… That this water may be for him a laver of regeneration unto the remission of sins, and a garment of incorruption… Form the image of thy Christ in him who is about to be born again through my humility… That, being planted in the likeness of thy death through baptism, he may become a sharer of thy resurrection.”

And then we do not say “I baptize you” because the priest is not the one who is acting. Instead, we say, “The servant of God N. is baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” and. “The servant of God N. Receives the precious and holy body and blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.” “The servant of God N. is ordained”. “The servant of God N. is anointed with the oil of gladness for the healing of soul and body…”

My job is to ask the Lord to do these things. There is certainly a right way to do it, and if I keep doing it wrong then my bishop will correct or discipline me. But who ever said God won’t show up if I don’t get the incantation right?

Roman Catholicism is not my religion so I can’t very well criticize what they do. But this is why you won’t see any Orthodox being told that their baptism didn’t work because somebody said a word wrong.