12/06/2013 01:49 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

The Real Miracle of Nelson Mandela Isn't What We Think

Fifteen years ago almost to the day, I saw President Nelson Mandela in person in South Africa. And in the process, I got to experience a miracle happen, too.

It was December 1, 1998. I was spending a year as a visiting fellow at the University of Cape Town, and I went to see President Mandela speak in observance of World AIDS Day at the Cape Town central train station. The main room of the station was filled with people who had come out to see him, and the crowd was overwhelmingly made up of those whom he had fought so long and courageously to liberate from apartheid: cleaning women and minibus taxi drivers; stall vendors and gardeners; Xhosa people, Sotho people, Zulu people, Coloured people. There was, of course, a security checkpoint to clear, which was being run by a group of white, Afrikaner police officers.

Inexplicably, they had only set up one metal detector through which to run the entire crowd, so the line was massive and slow. As more and more people arrived, the crowd began pressing in. My wife and I were in the line and began to get pushed forward from behind. As we finally got near the checkpoint, they shut it down entirely, no longer able to control the flow through the detector, and began shouting derogatory things at the crowd for not obeying them. The crowd shouted back at the police and pushed forward, nearly lifting us off our feet in the process. Then the police began to get anxious and called in reinforcements wearing batons and holding onto large dogs. They formed a line, and the crowd pressed toward it. It was like the whole place had flashed back ten years or so, with angry white police threatening violence against a defiant crowd. And somehow, my wife and I found ourselves in the very front of the crowd, unable to stop ourselves from being pushed towards the waiting police line. The batons were coming out; the visors were coming down; the dogs were straining against their collars toward us.

And then: Just as the anger and hostility was reaching a crescendo peak, just as I was wincing from the expected blow of a baton coming down on my head, I felt a blast of energy sweep from the front of the vast room, where those who had cleared security already were waiting, and over us into the crowd, as if a lightning bolt had struck and the electricity had surged through the room. Suddenly the men were cheering, the women were ululating, the police officers had straightened up and brought their dogs to heel. Suddenly, the whole crowd and the police stepped back from each other at the same time. The batons disappeared and a line appeared in front of the checkpoint. The police stepped back up to the scanner, and people began to go through it.

It was a miracle. And it happened because suddenly, Nelson Mandela had arrived. Just by being present, he changed the reality in the room, reminded everyone of who and how they wanted to be as individuals and as a society, and they responded.

Right now, Christians around the world are observing the season of Advent, a period of active waiting and hope for the miraculous coming of Jesus Christ to fully and finally establish God's reign on earth as it is in heaven, as we prepare to celebrate one of the essential miracles of the Christian faith: that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) when Christ was born. To keep Advent is to affirm that God is not content with or indifferent to the way things are in the world, and that God will not rest until the world is fully restored to the way things should be, the way God has always intended things to be: a world that embodies God's compassion, justice, wholeness, and peace.

My favorite definition of a miracle is when "the way things should be" overcomes "the way things are." And that doesn't just happen. Miracles are performed; they are created; they are achieved. Miracles require faith that "the way things are" is not the only possible reality; that the world can change, can become more of what should be, and less of what it is and has always been. That's what was going on that day in the Cape Town train station; that's what happened in the "South African Miracle," when against every reasonable expectation, South Africa went from being a brutal, racist, minority-controlled regime to a new reality in which the former oppressors and formerly oppressed would join together in a multiracial democracy.

Those are authentic miracles. But it is vitally important to remember that Nelson Mandela did not create those miracles; he did not perform or achieve them by himself, as he would be the first to say. The temptation is to think and say otherwise, to canonize Mandela as "the one" who accomplished the miracle of a unified South Africa, and in the process to put him on the shelf of history to be safely admired and commemorated from a distance, with our only obligation being to respect his life and memory.

The true greatness of Mandela, the most profound miracle he performed, was that he made his supporters, his enemies, and his admirers around the world believe that the world could change and be redeemed; he made all of us believe that "the way things are" is not the way things have to be. He made us believe we could be a part of making that change happen, in becoming miracle-workers ourselves. He showed us amazing ways of doing that, and he made us want to join him.

If we don't remember that, if we turn Mandela into the source of those miracles rather than one of the first and foremost among the workers of them, then we lose his profound gift of making us believe not only that miracles can happen, but that we can and must be a part of doing them. And when we do remember that, then he can continue to be present with us and inspire us to change the reality in which we find ourselves; to remind us of who and how we want to be as individuals and as societies. For he has now taken his place as part of the "great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us and inspires us to "run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Heb 12:1); until we finish our own race, or until Advent itself is finished and God fully and finally restores the world to how God has always intended it to be.