I was five years old when the movie Star Wars was released in 1977. My mother took my brother Robert and me to see it in the theater. Immediately after the movie, we walked next door to TG&Y and purchased our first Star Wars action figures. Robert got Luke Skywalker and C3P0. I got Darth Vader and R2D2. Thus began a childhood love affair with outer space. For me, then, space was all about starships and laser beams and talking robots. Space was full of excitement, colorful characters, and action.
By the time I was in junior high school, my enthusiasm for outer space translated into two different trips to Space Camp at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where we ran mock space shuttle missions in incredibly life-like simulators. Despite the fact that the shuttle mission I piloted burned up on reentry because we forgot to close the shuttle’s cargo bay doors, the experience felt a lot like Star Wars minus the ray guns. It was hugely exciting.
My enthusiasm for outer space came to a screeching halt in the mid-1980s, however, with space shuttle mission STS-41-B. On that mission, astronaut Bruce McCandless operated, for the first time ever, NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit: a jetpack. Photos of McCandless in the jetpack appeared on magazine covers and newspapers across the globe, the first-ever human being to free-float in space, untethered to the shuttle or anything else. Most thought it was great. I thought it was terrible. It is difficult adequately to describe the dread and anxiety I felt when I saw the photograph of McCandless alone against the black backdrop of space. It was existential. My excitement turned to horror, and the horror ran deep. Immediately, for me, outer space was no longer about Jedi and wookies. It was about the unearthly cold, human fragility, and the endless empty void. I could no longer think about outer space without an ominous chill.
In my teenage angst, my interest in space didn’t wane, it just transitioned into something morbid. I became especially interested in black holes, as the denouement of space’s terror. Even now, I don’t fully understand black holes. The best description I’ve found comes from a reporter who describes black holes as “too much matter crammed into one place, [where] the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap.”[i]
What goes into a black hole never comes out. And everything goes into a black hole: planets, suns, even something as ephemeral as light itself. Light, life, the future, hope; it all ends in a black hole. Black holes are the universe’s Good Friday. Black holes are the cosmic tomb.
The friends and followers of Jesus experienced their own transition from enthusiasm to horror these past few days, except unlike my childhood terror, theirs was not hypothetical but very real. It must have been thrilling to follow Jesus, to see his inexplicable power, to believe in him as a leader, a teacher, a savior who would usher in a different, better world. This must have been true right until that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the illusion of safety and security with Jesus was shed in an instant. The next morning revealed Jesus alone and untethered from everything that might protect and preserve him, like that astronaut floating in the void. Except Jesus wasn’t entirely untethered. He was firmly affixed to a crossbeam of wood, designed to torture and humiliate him while terrorizing those who loved him. In every way, it was effective. Can you imagine the juxtaposition of such horror on the heels of such hope?
And then, all of it—the enthusiasm, the hope, the very light that was Jesus which so briefly but brightly illumined the disciples’ world, is finally swallowed by the tomb. As with a black hole, it is over. Nothing is left. And the disciples are left alone and numb in the void.
I suspect this year we may have some inkling, some minor conception at least, of that feeling. Last year at this time the coronavirus pandemic was still so new that there was a kind of morbid, frantic excitement to it: What did it mean? How long might it last? How can we fight or debate with those who view it differently than we do? Then the horror set in, as people we knew got sick and died, as the death toll exceeded the number of Americans killed in World War II, and as the health crisis became an economic crisis threatening our livelihoods and an education crisis threatening to leave a generation of kids behind. The past year has been like an endless Passion Week, stretched taut over three hundred sixty-five days. This Easter we are exhausted; we are numb; and for very many of us all our energy has been swallowed as if into a black hole, as if into a tomb.
My fascination with black holes never entirely waned, and a few years ago I read an article about a startling discovery at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. It turns out Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves a century ago, but since then they remained merely theoretical. No one had ever actually detected them. That is, until 2015, when LIGO’s antenna, more than two miles in length, picked up a faint chirp from across the void. In-depth analysis concluded that the chirp was gravitational waves, which were the result of two black holes colliding, a billion years ago, millions of galaxies from the Milky Way. Not one black hole, but two, and when they smashed into one another, as the article’s author put it, “a few last quivers of energy escaped.”[ii]
You see, though everything ends in a black hole, when these two black holes collided—these cosmic tombs—they also, paradoxically, produced something new. Gravitational waves pushed outward, just averting the maw of the black holes’ event horizon—escaping the tomb—and coursed through the cosmos. What’s more, when the waves reached the LIGO antenna on earth and that chirp was finely processed, it was discovered to sound like a run on a piano keyboard, from low A to middle C. LIGO scientists went on to say that “different celestial sources emit their own sorts of gravitational waves…The binary neutron stars are like piccolos. Isolated spinning pulsars…‘ding’ like a triangle, and black holes fill in the string section, running form double bass on up, depending upon their mass.” Which means that, quite literally, all around us, as gravitational waves pulse, the universe is singing “like a cosmic orchestra.”[iii]
It is as if the cosmos is telling us, as if God is telling us, that even the black hole—the tomb—does not have the last word. Even the crushing finality of death itself is not the end. From the heart of the void, the universe sings! But we Christians have known that all along. In our burial liturgy, we say, “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”[iv]
We know this because of this very day. We know this because Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and John rush to the graveyard to find the tomb empty. We know this because Jesus Christ, the embodiment of their hope and ours, and the incarnation of God, has emerged from the black hole as the universe’s song.
On this Easter day, we have resumed our own singing in this space. We are reminded—our hope is restored—that no virus, no crisis, no terror, no tomb has the last word in our lives. The last word always and ever comes from the God who creates the cosmos, the God born and resurrected in Jesus. In our faith, as in this past year, we have moved from naïve excitement, through anxiety and fear and numbness, to this very moment when we first detect, like LIGO’s antenna, something transformed and new. At first it is but a chirp, but the waves will continue for all who have ears to hear. They will crescendo from all sources and sides, until our joy resounds like a cosmic symphony and we echo the song of our risen Lord.
[i] Quoted by the Rev. Ann Benton Fraser in an Easter sermon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio, April 21, 2019.
[iv] Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.