In the year 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus gave the world a bad case of vertigo. That year, his book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published. The book took the universally-held model of the solar system, and exactly reversed it. For fourteen centuries, the Ptolemaic understanding had held sway. It was geocentric. It contended that the earth stood at the center of the cosmos, with all the other heavenly bodies revolving around it. But Copernicus studied astronomy with great care, and he became convinced that the earth was not at the center of things. The cosmos was not geocentric, he argued, but heliocentric. All revolves not around us, but, rather, all including us revolves around the sun. Copernicus shared his views with only his friends for thirty years before finally allowing his work to be published widely. Upon publication, it immediately became obvious that his apprehension was well-founded. The great German reformer Martin Luther reacted with ridicule, saying, “There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody [who was] moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”[i]
Decades after Copernicus, Galileo championed his idea, and Galileo was tried and condemned for it before the Inquisition, not once but twice. The Inquisition said that the heliocentric theory was “foolish and absurd…and heretical.”[ii] In the attempt to prevent his teaching from spreading, Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
It isn’t difficult to fathom why so many people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries recoiled at the notion of a heliocentric cosmos. It just didn’t make common sense. Even now, from our seemingly fixed point of view, the stars move across the night sky, just as the sun daily travels from east to west. But beyond these astronomical observations—and perhaps more influentially—is the impact of Copernicus’ theory on the ego. Just as human beings assumed that the earth stood at the center of the cosmos, people equally presumed that they stood at the center of the great narrative of cosmic history. We still do. The story is all about us, here, and so we and the earth on which we stand must surely be at the center of things. The contention that reality could be constructed otherwise was just too much in the days of Copernicus and Galileo. I’d suggest, existentially speaking, it may be too much for us today, too.
Do you recall the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show? In the film, Truman is raised from childhood as the star of a reality T.V show, but he is unaware of it. Everyone in his life, including his parents and his best friend, are actually actors, and his every move is broadcast onto television sets across the globe. Only Truman himself has no idea. To him, it is simply life. For everyone else, Truman is the very center of attention. They tune in to watch his story. As the movie progresses, Truman slowly becomes aware of his reality, that he’s been the star of the show all along.
The Truman Show was released just as reality television was becoming a thing, and in the years following, a funny thing happened. Psychologists actually noticed a phenomenon they came to call the “Truman Show Delusion,” in which people in our real world believe that they are secretly being filmed as part of a hit T.V. show.[iii] They believe that they are the star of the show, that the minutia of their lives is captivating fodder for the rest of us. They believe they are at the very center of the universe.
As is often the case, the newest psychological malady of the day is really a sign of something more pervasive in our culture. Some lesser version of the Truman Show Delusion affects a whole lot of people. From the common man to the greatest halls of power, we’ve returned to a new kind of geocentric view of the cosmos. We each believe, subconsciously perhaps, that the universe revolves around us, that we are the star of the show, the very center of the story. This affects how we interact with our families, and many believe our relationships to be flawed if they don’t complete us. It affects our economics, as we evaluate every personal business decision or state and national policy decision according to how they affect us rather than by what good they might or might not do for society-at-large. It affects whether we have empathy and compassion for those outside our orbit. And, most importantly, it affects our lives of faith and the way we approach Jesus the Christ. Think about that. We engage Jesus primarily when we need or want something. Rather than revolving our lives around the Son—that’s S-O-N in this case—we subconsciously imagine that the Son revolves around us.
This brings us to today’s Gospel, where we are introduced on this Second Sunday of Advent to John the Baptist. John is a natural star, a preacher with mega-church chops. Mark’s Gospel tells us that he draws people from “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” In other words, John’s message equally captivates salt-of-the-earth rural folk and the urban elite. (That’s star quality!) The people stream into the wilderness and revolve around John in an orbit. They hang on his every word. And what does John do? What does he say? What model does he offer?
John the Baptist deflects any and all attention from himself. He removes himself from the center—he acknowledges that the center is not where he rightly resides—and instead he uses the brightness of his own star quality to point to the Son (S-O-N) around which all else truly revolves. John is our spiritual Copernicus! In other words, in word and action, John does the thing he preaches: He prepares the way of the Lord by recognizing deeply that he—John—is to play a supporting role for the grace of God that will come in Jesus and make all things new. Whatever else he is or will do in life will be in service to, will revolve around, the Son.
Our Truman Show culture forms us to believe intuitively that the world revolves around us, that we stand at the center, that we are the stars of the show, that the story is all about us, here. But that is narrative of our culture, not the narrative of our faith. At the center of the faith story is the Incarnate God, who will in two more weeks be born among us, to radiate from that center healing and restoring grace throughout the world. Our part to play—and the role that will give us purpose and meaning and the deepest satisfaction in the end—is a supporting one in service to the Way of Jesus.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John says to us this Advent season as well. What will that be for me and for you? Will we, beginning this very day, look upon ourselves with a shift in perspective, recognizing that the center of the universe is not, after all, where we stand? Our meaning, our love, our very existence orbit the Son. Our axis tilts toward his love. And our part to play in the sacred story is to further his grace in this world in all that we say and through all the choices we make in every aspect of our lives. We may shine like stars, but our light is to be like that of the star over Bethlehem, always and only pointing the way to the Incarnate God.