E’VE ALL SEEN THE CLASSIC magician’s trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. First, the magician shows everyone a top hat. He turns it upside-down to prove that it’s empty. Then, maybe he’ll wave a wand or shake the hat a bit, and he pulls out of it a living rabbit. It’s the most basic, most iconic magic trick of them all. The magician makes something appear out of nothing.
So it might seem like what Jesus did at the wedding feast at Cana was magic. At the request of His Mother, He takes six huge jars of water—about 150 gallons (!)—and, presto-chango, turns them into wine. But this wasn’t a magic trick. It was Jesus’ first miracle.
Something similar happens at every Mass. Whereas Jesus took water and changed it into wine, in every Mass, the priest takes wine and, by God’s power, changes it into the Precious Blood of Christ. That change is utterly complete. When Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, He turned it into the best kind of wine. He didn’t make just some ratty batch of Shiraz. It was so good, the headwaiter says, “You have kept the best wine until now.”
In much the same way, at Mass, the wine that’s sitting there on the offertory table is brought to the altar and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is utterly transformed into the Precious Blood of Christ. There’s a special word for that transformation; it’s called “transubstantiation,” the complete changing of bread and wine into Christ’s Body & Blood at the words of consecration. The Mass is not magic. It is, however, miraculous. What transpires before us every Sunday—what I, as a priest, celebrate every single day—is a miracle of the first order.
Many folks have accused the Mass of being magical, although it is not. In fact, the magician’s phrase, Hocus pocus, came about as a parody of the words said by the priest at Mass. In Latin, the priest prays, Hoc est enim corpus meum, “This is my body.” That was shortened to Hocus pocus, and it came to be used by magicians when bringing about some sort of change.
In the rabbit-from-a-hat trick, the magician makes something appear out of nothing. Differently, at Cana, Jesus took water and changed it into wine. And at every Mass, the priest takes wine, mingled with water, and consecrates it to become the Precious Blood of Christ. As astonishing as this is, the Mass is not magical. It is marvelous, mysterious, and miraculous.