I read once that the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe used to put on court robes when he went into his observatory. For Tycho, gazing out into the heavens was a great occasion, and being from an aristocratic family, he had court robes to wear. His great contribution to science was a new level of accuracy in measurements and reliance on empirical observation. His geo-centric cosmology gave way to the heliocentric scheme of Copernicus, but Tycho, along with Kepler and Copernicus and Galileo, remains one of the fathers of modern astronomy. I don’t know if Kepler or Copernicus or Galileo ever wore court robes to go to their observatories.
But today the Church puts on hers. It’s a great occasion; it’s the greatest occasion. If there’s ever a day to create a sense of great occasion with damask, brocade, flowers, incense and beautiful music, it is today. Today is the greatest occasion because God has addressed our worst fears and our highest aspirations—“the hopes and fears of all the years”, as one of our Christmas carols puts it. This is the occasion of all occasions, the day of all days. The “court robe” that I’m wearing, this cope, was hand crafted as an ordination gift from my parents, who live now in resurrection light. It fit a little better 20 years ago when I was an inch taller.I don’t think the astronomers at the BICEP2 radio telescope at the South Pole or their colleagues here in Cambridge at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have been wearing court robes lately, but they certainly have a lot to celebrate. They’ve found the best evidence yet for cosmic inflation in that first trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Or was it a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second? Here we are now 13.8 billion years later–on the very cusp of time, singing about the most amazing things.
So much has happened in those 13.8 billion years. But, here we are—in court robes, singing our hearts out. Somewhere along the way, we human beings happened. First sentience, then consciousness, then reflective self-awareness. And somewhere, somehow, we acquired awareness of past, present and future. And moral awareness, conscience, a sense of what is good and right and what is not. We take all this for granted, but these are no small things.
We are capable of the most amazing things: radio telescopes at the South Pole looking at the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second of time. Dancers spinning around on tippy toe while an orchestra plays Tschaikowsky. Complex mental operations involving cognition, calculation, language, metaphor, paradox, irony and humor. We can weave fibers into damask and brocade. We are the most complex beings in the universe known to us.
The benefit of being so complex is that we can do so many amazing things. The cost of our being so complex is that complicated systems are fragile and prone to failure of all kinds in the rough and tumble of life in this universe. I say this universe, because some of those scientists looking at cosmic inflation wonder if our universe is but one bubble in an incomprehensibly vast sea of foam of other bubbles—each one another universe.
Being as aware as we are, being as complicated and therefore fragile as we human beings are brings with it a triple affliction: one of the past, one of the present and one of the future. One, two, three.
Our consciences, our moral bearings, have given us a sense of transgression. Our memory of the past means that our transgressions persist in our memories—we remember our sins and the sins of others. The memory of sin can be toxic. Number one.
Being aware of the future brings its own affliction: we fear what shall become of us. How long will I live, and what will happen when I die? Our greatest and probably most toxic fear is the fear of death. Number two.
And the present has its afflictions. Even for those who enjoy good health, freedom and provision of all necessities, there is a common affliction: the crisis of meaning. Does my life ultimately signify anything? Does my suffering, my happiness, my work, my relationships, my successes, my failures—does any of it have significance? The crisis of meaning is an affliction of the present. Number three.
We are wondrously made, yet triply afflicted: past, present and future. One, two, three. The bases are loaded, to use a baseball metaphor. The bases are loaded as God steps up to the plate. And it’s a Grand Slam—the Grand Slam of all time. The Big Bang was 13.8 billion years ago. The Grand Slam, 2000 years ago—as if yesterday. The most toxic afflictions of past, present and future are vanquished. The Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ are God’s Grand Slam.
Before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the people of Israel sacrificed animals as reparation for sin and transgression. But, in Jesus Christ God says: enough of that, I will be the victim, once for all; you are set free from all sin; I’ll pay off the judge; whatever you’ve done or failed to do, you need not fear. Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. God’s Paschal Lamb is sacrificed for us. Therefore we keep this feast—in Christ, the sins of our past are not held against us.
We have evolved to desire life and to resist death. Mature reflection may lead us eventually to a holy and healthy resignation in the face of death, but we are naturally inclined to resist. Even Christ himself agonized over his impending death. The future afflicts us in our resistance to death, sometimes agonizingly so—as with Jesus in the Garden. But his resurrection is God’s answer to our fear of death. Jesus said, I go to prepare a place for you; I will raise you up on the last day. Our future is assured: life abundant, life eternal in the place he has prepared for us.
Past, future, present. The present can be pretty messy; it can be wonderful, it can be horrific. The present embraces the whole spectrum of human experience from agony to ecstasy. But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ offers us meaning. These lives of ours do have meaning. In Christ God has embraced the human condition in a new way: God is in us, we are in God.
In Christ, through Christ, these lives of ours have been taken up into a larger reality. We are Christ’s body, St. Paul tells us. We are now subsumed into God’s own presence in the world; we are now integral to God’s mission. It is in us and through us that the love of God comes to full fruition. The First Letter of John tells us that God’s love is brought to perfection in us. St. Teresa of Avila puts it this way: “Christ has no body but yours”. We are the hands that do the work of Christ on this earth. We are the loving hands, the giving hands, the healing hands, the guiding hands, the praying hands. We are his body. And that, my sisters and brothers, is the meaning of our lives: we are the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the world.
If you’re experiencing a lack of meaning in your life, do what you think Christ might do, say what you think Christ might say. Be gracious, smile, open a door, say “I love you.” Say “thank you”. Be generous. Any of a trillion things. Then know this—and know this well: every impulse of love, every gesture of love is the love of God made manifest in this world right now through you. You are his hands, you are his body. In one sense, we are the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, his living body.
And we already have our “court robe”. We just don’t see it very well–yet. As Paul puts it, we are “clothed with Christ”. He himself is our robe, the most magnificent of all robes. Far better than even the finest damask or brocade. And it fits perfectly—one size fits all. We are clothed with Christ in his risen glory most magnificently.
I wouldn’t wear this get-up, this cope, down at Fenway Park (although I did wear a black cassock once to a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field—which didn’t help them at all…). And I wouldn’t wear it to the observatory at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. But I sure am glad to wear it here on this happiest occasion—this greatest of all occasions.
So, with the whole Church, the Body of Christ in all times and all places, let us proclaim the good news, the best news of all news, once again:
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed, Alleluia!
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