The Euclid Telescope made news just several weeks ago. You may have seen in the media an astonishing sample of photos from this new robotic telescope, launched in July, and which is mapping the “extragalactic sky.” [i] I find most striking a photo of what is being called the “Horsehead Nebula,” an equine-shaped cloud with baby stars. It is many light years away: 1,375 light years away from us. One light year is almost 6 trillion miles from earth. This “Horsehead Nebula” we can now see is 1,375 x 6 trillion miles away from us.[ii]
If I sound as if I know what I am talking about, I do not. I know virtually nothing about the science of astronomy. I am a reader, and an awestruck observer, as you may be also. This interstellar experience of the vastness of God’s creation is the very thing we read about in the Psalms. The psalmist writes about the God, the Creator:
“Your majesty is praised in the heavens…
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
who are we that you should be mindful of us…?”[iii]
Who are we? We are among those whom the scriptures call “children of God” who have lived the generations of time before us and who, in God’s mercy, may live generations of time beyond us. This is what God has had in mind since the dawn of creation: we come from God, and we belong to God, and we have captured God’s desire to share life in eternity with us. All of us, all God’s creatures.
And, in the meantime, in this very mean time in which we are living, so many things are in such an appalling mess. Don’t you know? So much of life does not seem to be heading in the direction God has in mind. Our first lesson appointed for this evening, from the prophecy of Isaiah, could seem either incredibly naïve or patently unfeasible.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of a forthcoming time of “righteousness.” Righteousness is morally correct behavior. Isaiah paints a metaphoric picture of righteousness, a picture which seems so innocent that it is unimaginable: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…” I call this a prophecy of hope for the future, because this is a far cry from what we normally witness in the here-and-now.
Looking to the heavens, I imagine that these sparkling nebulae, which we can barely see, are asking for attention. Seeking our attention. I imagine these celestial creations want to be noticed, they as much as the star of Bethlehem. These mysterious galaxies surrounding us are fellow creatures of God, and they may help give focus for us in this season of Advent.
In Advent we look backwards in time to when the Messiah was anticipated. Our lesson from the prophecy of Isaiah anticipates that first coming of the Messiah, whom we know as Jesus. The season of Advent also looks to a second coming of the Messiah, in the end of times, which makes now a time of preparation.
Our Advent preparation is to pray that our own heart have more room for our world, this world that God so loves, the vast configuration of God’s creation. This is a costly prayer because this prayer will enlarge our experience of reverence, wonder, and gratitude for all that God has created. This prayer will also bring us more dearly into the heart of God, God’s broken heart.
I am speaking very anthropomorphically, naming God’s broken heart. But if, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth for the love of it, for God’s sheer delight in sharing such a wonder as this vast gift we call creation, then it must break God’s heart to witness such strife, enmity, persecution, warfare, neglect, degradation, and plunder in this beautiful world which God so loves. It must break God’s heart. If we more intentionally pray for God’s creation, all of God’s creation – plants, animals, the sea and the air, the mountains and the plains… and other human beings – we will experience wonder and gratitude for all that God has created, and we shall also share in God’s grief for what has gone amiss. We will partner with God’s resolve that it all be righted. We will be an answer to God’s prayer. This is the work of righteousness, of making right.
Our Advent season of preparation puts us in our place. Each of us is one whom God so loves; however we are not the only one. We each are like a unique star in the galaxies of God’s stars, each of us such beauties; each of us such mysteries. Our own celestial awareness needs to be grounded in the here-and-now. I find it a helpful practice not only to look up, but also to look down. I regularly walk through cemeteries to observe the gravestones, and I find it helpful to read obituaries. Every stone and every story we read tells of someone who had parents, who had needs as common and complex as our own, and who, as they grew, would have had hopes and dreams. I find this practice of the awareness of the departed awakens in me amazement and compassion for those in the past, a humility towards others in the present, and a resolve of justice and mercy for future generations. We know so little of others’ life stories which, if we knew more, we would find miraculous. God knows the miracle of life, and everyone is a unique miracle.
This kind of attentiveness is also a helpful way to track the media, which is often so toxic. Take in the news, not just as a voyeur or critic but as a witness. Read or listen to the news, on the one hand witnessing the majesty, wonder, and power evident in creation in so many ways and in so many places. And then witness the breakdown in what is not lifegiving. Take in the news as a witness. Pray thanksgiving for what is wondrous and beautiful. Pray intervention for what is appalling. Behind the most heinous of actions, a person is addressing some need, the more violent the action, the more desperate the need. I am not in any way excusing the horrendous actions that we witness on a daily basis, happening at the local, national, international, and corporate levels. Perpetrators must be held accountable. However underlying the most appalling, ignominious, illegal actions is someone crying for help.
Our prayer in Advent is to point people to God. Pray for them in the constellation of God’s presence. Pray especially for people who catch your heart’s attention. Pray for their experience of God’s provision, for God’s tender loving mercy for them. Which, in the end, is what God had in mind in the beginning: to share life, all of us in all time to share life in God’s presence for evermore. Pray to love more of who and what God loves, as God loves, for the love of God. We all have such an important and unique mission to intervene life with love.
We all are “children of God” whom the scriptures identify as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before God.”[iv] The galaxies remind us of the infinitude of God’s light, and life, and love which is beyond us, and around us, and also within us. We ground that awareness in our own prayer and in our own work of righteousness, for the love of God. For all time, we all belong to God. Our life’s mission is to be agents of the majesty and mercy of God, who is the beginning of life, the way of life, and the end of all life.
[ii] A light-year is a unit of length expressing astronomical distances:1 light-year = 5.879 trillion miles. Nebulae are formations of gas, dust, and other materials “clumped” together, eventually becoming dense enough to form stars.
[iii] Psalm 8.
[iv] Revelation 7:9.
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