Of Stardust and Jesus

This past week my alma mater, The University of Chicago, announced the astounding news that it has recovered and analyzed stardust from a meteorite that crash landed in Australia fifty years ago.[i]  The stardust has a history worthy of a Hollywood epic.  Five billion years ago—Five billion!  That’s older than our own sun—a star exploded and cast forth the dust into the far reaches of a universe still being born.  It was an active time in the cosmos, scientists believe, when stars came to be, and shuddered, and died with much greater frequency than they do today.  The whole universe was bursting like the night sky on the Fourth of July, and Australian stardust chronicles the story even now.

The story amazed me.  It underscores the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, in age, in size, and, quite possibly, in meaning.  The story also reminded me of Eucharistic Prayer C, which we say at 9 a.m. at Christ Church during the season of Epiphany.  “At your command,” Eucharistic Prayer C says, “all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses…”  And that sentence ends, “…and this fragile earth, our island home.”

black and white image, close-up of crystalline dust fragment

Five billion year old mote of stardust

You see, Prayer C is designed to accentuate our smallness in the grand cosmic sweep, the near-nothingness that we are from a God’s-eye perspective.  Prayer C reminds us of our fragility and our contingency in a universe of black holes, quasars, and stardust older than the sun.  It calls into question all of our little human goals and purposes and whimsically smiles from a billion years ago at our pretensions to importance.

Prayer C does all of these things, but it in its next breath it adds, almost as if in confused wonder, “From the primal elements you brought forth the human race and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.”  The prayer takes this turn as if to quote the scripture and ask of God, “How have I found such favor in your eyes that you take notice of me?”[ii]  The God in whose hands the mighty stars are playthings turns God’s attention to the insignificant third rock from a tiny sun, a split second ago in cosmic time, and creates us, who are so small and yet have within each one of us a conscious universe all its own.

In today’s Gospel passage this mind-bending contrast is made explicit in the very person of Jesus.  The first disciples Jesus calls say of Jesus, “We have found the Messiah.”  To us, two thousand years later, these words may have little impact, but to the fishermen of first century Galilee they were as big and astounding as the news of billion-year-old stardust found in Australia.  The term “messiah” connoted the appearance of God’s anointed, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a thousand years.  It meant the return of King David, who embodied all the hopes of Israel.  And this messiah was named Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, which we may have forgotten, but Andrew and Peter had not, was the one in Israel’s history who came after Moses; the new Moses; the one who, like Moses, would redeem God’s people.  In other words, Andrew the fisherman declares today that Jesus the Messiah is the one whose impact will be like the cosmic fireworks that marked the dawn of time.  This is the biggest news, of the greatest power.  Jesus the Messiah will change everything.[iii]

But twice in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist, who is the very first to recognize Jesus for who he is, does not call Jesus messiah or Moses.  John calls Jesus “the lamb of God,” and lambs have no power.  They are born and exist only to be sacrificed on the altar.  They are the definition of insignificance.  And so, we encounter the contrast in Jesus himself.  How can he be both the Moses-Messiah and the lamb, so big and so small, so powerful and so powerless?  What sense does that make?  We’ll come back to that.

I’m fascinated by cosmology, by the stories quasars and stardust can tell us.  But I’m even more fascinated by the quantum world, that realm so tiny that atoms are as big as solar systems.  Renowned Cambridge theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, who is also an Anglican priest, argues that God actively works not through the biggest and grandest things but through the smallest.  God works, Polkinghorne believes, in the sub-atomic, quantum, interstitial spaces where randomness and freedom are the only law.  There, in the tiny, most insignificant places, God nudges, and reality moves.[iv]

That brings us back to the Gospel.  Jesus is the Messiah, the new Moses who will redeem all people, but the way his power works will frustrate his disciples, his enemies, and us.  “Show us your power,” we all say, “light up the sky like a starburst.”  But Jesus exercises his power as the lamb.  Like God, Jesus works in and through the smallest, interstitial spaces.  Again and again in his ministry, Jesus speaks a word of grace to the one in need.  He embraces the one who is untouchable.  He pauses for the one the world passes by.  Today, to the one seeking meaning, he says simply, “Come and see.”  And when it becomes necessary to do so, Jesus sacrifices himself on the altar of the world’s violence, as a testament to God’s love that will not participate in that violence.  None of these things looks to us like power.  They are each so very small.  And yet, Jesus nudges, and the world moves.  He transformed—he transforms—the world.

Image result for earth tiny from space

What does all of this mean for us?  It means, first of all, that we should—we must—acknowledge our own smallness in the face of reality.  We have for so long failed to do so, and in our willful insistence that we are the biggest, most important thing around we have damaged relationships, and the earth, and ourselves almost beyond repair.  We have engaged in violent thoughts, and words, and sometimes actions all in the subconscious effort to substantiate the claim of our own centrality and importance.  As we pray to God in Eucharistic Prayer C, “We turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.”  The world can’t take anymore.  It is time to listen to the Prayer Book about our fragility and our true place in the cosmic scheme of things.

But it is equally important to hear what the Prayer Book and Jesus also say about our role and our purpose.  Small as we are, God takes notice of us, and that is a profound thing.  God grants us with memory, reason, and skill, but not so that we can try to exercise the gravitational pull of a sun.  God grants us these powers so that we exercise them like the lamb, in kindness, in care, and in love, especially for those who, like those touched by Jesus, are in the greatest need.

In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, the great and powerful of Middle Earth vie over who will wield the One Ring of power.  Wizards, elves, and warriors each believe that their own importance and power make them the best suited.  But ultimately, only Frodo the Hobbit, who is the smallest and least powerful of all, the one others barely notice, can safely carry the ring.  Frodo can do so because he alone understands his place in the world and the role he is called to play.  Only Frodo does not want the ring, and thus his powerlessness becomes power, and goodness prevails.

Image result for frodo and the ring

Only Frodo can carry the ring

As lambs who follow the Lamb, we can nudge in the interstitial space, and the world will move.  That is how God works, and that’s how God can work through us.  If we all nudge together, we might just tilt the world on its very axis and transform it by God’s grace.  Come and see!


[i] https://news.uchicago.edu/story/uchicago-field-museum-scientists-discover-oldest-material-earth-7-billion-year-old-stardust

[ii] Ruth 2:10

[iii] I’m grateful to the Rev. Winne Varghese on this point, for a sermon she preached at Trinity Church-Wall Street on August 4, 2019: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/sunday-9am-sermon-rev-winnie-varghese-0

[iv] https://onbeing.org/programs/john-polkinghorne-quarks-and-creation/

Escaping the 2010s; soaring into the 2020s

In 1982 with the Cold War still in full swing, Walt Disney released the film Night Crossing, starring John Hurt and Beau Bridges.  The film tells the true story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, who in 1979 fled repressive, Communist East Germany.  What is most remarkable is the manner of their flight.  The families created a massive, homemade hot air balloon, sewn under the cover of night on a sewing machine hidden in an attic.  They transported the balloon to a field on the outskirts of town and soared above the earth, dodging secret police on the ground and helicopters in the air.  And they did it twice.  The first time the balloon crashed a few hundred yards on the eastern side of the border.  The families snuck back to town, evaded the Stasi for weeks, made a second balloon, and finally made their flight a second, successful time.

Image result for night crossing movie

Night Crossing came to mind for me this past week, both as I studied the Gospel text for today of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and as I considered the auspicious change of the calendar.  I remember the fear and tension evoked throughout the film.  The characters were fidgety with anxiety as they moved toward the date of their escape.  The families wanted desperately to get out.

Today is the first Sunday of the new decade.  We’ve said goodbye not only to 2019 but to the 2010s, and for many the farewell has the feel of a flight response.  Like the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, we may want to hop into a balloon and soar far and away from the decade just ended.  Consider a few reasons why:

In the past ten years, the cost of private health insurance rose by more than 50%[i] while during the same decade median household income in the United States increased in real dollars by less than 3%.[ii]  We will soon reach a day when the cost of health insurance is no longer viable, for either individuals or employers.

In the past ten years, mass shootings in the United States, defined as shootings in which four or more people are killed in a public place, and not related to robberies or domestic violence, have proliferated.  Twenty years ago, mass shootings occurred, on average, once every six months.  Ten years ago, mass shootings occurred once every two-and-a-half months.  Today, a mass shooting occurs every forty-seven days.   Two thousand Americans have been killed in mass shootings since Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas fifty years ago, but half of those victims have been killed in the past decade, and a third, in fact, in the past five years.[iii][iv]

In the past ten years, the number of displaced people and refugees on the planet has reached a record high.  There are now 25.9 million refugees across the globe.[v]  That’s almost equal to the entire population of Texas.  Think about that.  And more than half of those refugees are children under age eighteen.  These are people like the Holy Family in today’s Gospel, willing to travel in the dark of night, to take risks as daunting and dangerous as making a homemade hot air balloon or crossing the Rio Grande with an infant on one’s back, in the effort to preserve those they love.

Related image

In the past ten years, the number of displaced people and refugees on the planet has reached a record high.  And more than half of those refugees are children under age eighteen.

In the past ten years, we could add to these tribulations environmental degradation, the dearth of economic opportunity in our nation’s heartland, the loss of faith in religious institutions, the breakdown in the common goodwill, and the disdainful rhetoric of our political leaders, all as contributors to our desire to soar up and away, our flight response from the decade just ended.

I saw the movie Night Crossing in the theatre, and I’ve never forgotten the final scene.  When the hot air balloon lands in a field, the fathers of the two families creep toward the road, until a policeman shines his flashlight on them.  One of the men asks, “Are we in the West?”  The officer responds, “You are,” and the fathers’ joy erupts as they call forth their families from the shadows.

Note that the question asked is not, “Have we escaped the East?” but “Have we found the West?”  You see, though the film certainly includes much anxiety and fear to escape from, it is even more deeply characterized by the hope of flight to.  More than the families fleeing the past, they are pursing a hopeful future, even when doing so requires much risk and danger.  And that casts a different light.

In the Gospel text today, the same dual perspective pertains.  On the face of it, the Holy Family is fleeing clear and present danger.  They must get out, and that quickly, in front of Herod’s death squads.  But our horizon on this event is as broad as the whole Gospel.  We know the rest of the story, and the story is that from the flight of a dark and desperate yesterday Jesus moves into a tomorrow that brings light, hope, and love first to dusty Palestine and then to the whole world.  The Holy Family escapes from Herod so that they can move into God’s grace.

Throughout today’s Gospel, Matthew narrates again and again that the angel counsels and Joseph carries the Christ child from danger and into hope.  Five times the text says this, the child being the bearer of the priceless promise.  Not only is he the one taken into a hopeful future; he is also the very one who makes that future possible.

Image result for holy family flight to egypt

Not only is the Christ child the one taken into a hopeful future; he is also the very one who makes that future possible.

And so, as we move from one decade to another, must we really cast the turn of the calendar as a flight response?  Must we think primarily of the past decade as something from which we need to escape?  First we should ask, did we take Christ with us as the angel counsels, as we moved through those years?  Was he present in our world?

Surely, he was.  You see, this also characterized the 2010s:  In the decade just ended, the number of people across the globe living in extreme poverty was cut in half, from 1.2 billion to 600 million.  For the first time in human history, less than 10% of the world lives in extreme poverty.[vi]  With regard to violence, the misleading bombardment of the twenty-four-hour news cycle notwithstanding, we are now living in the least violent era of human history.  In the decade just ended, a smaller percentage of the world’s people died by violence than ever before.[vii]   The Christ child has been active locally as well.  In Houston during the decade just ended, the number of people who are chronically homeless and living on the street was cut in half.  At The Beacon, in the decade just ended, 70,000 different individuals walked through the doors and were fed 663,000 meals.  Adding spiritual nourishment to the physical, in the decade just ended, we at Christ Church baptized 448 people and confirmed or received 309 more.  Add to these few examples the countless other ways and places that Christ has been active, and the world begins to shine.

In other words, as we pull high and away from the decade past, we can see it as a time from which to anxiously escape, or we can recognize the light of Christ that we have carried through these years, that we continue to hold this day, and that we take with us into the future.  Any era—any day, or week, or year—can be either nightmare or dawn.  It all depends upon whether we understand ourselves to be escaping from darkness or flying toward hope.  The world will always include Herods, those who would turn on their neighbors, little men with lots of power who choose to be casually cruel, the apathetic.  But the movement of Christ into that world adds light that scatters darkness, crowds out anxiety with hope, and can redeem all things, including, if we’re brave and doggedly faithful, those tribulations I talked about at the outset.

So long as we carry Christ with us.  Only when we carry Christ with us.  We have to be as audacious as the kind of people who, in the shadow of danger, would patch together a hot air balloon in their attic and fly over barbed wire into hope.  We have not escaped the 2010s; we are soaring into the 2020s, and through us the love and grace of God will render this a better world.  Happy new year.


[i] https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/columnists/tomlinson/article/Health-care-lobby-won-in-2019-voters-have-a-14941850.php#

[ii] https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/09/us-median-household-income-not-significantly-different-from-2017.html

[iii][iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/05/more-deadlier-mass-shooting-trends-america/?arc404=true

[iv] https://everytownresearch.org/massshootingsreports/mass-shootings-in-america-2009-2019/

[v] https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

[vi] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/12/13/rethinking-global-poverty-reduction-in-2019/

[vii] https://towardsdatascience.com/has-global-violence-declined-a-look-at-the-data-5af708f47fba