4th Sunday in Creation-time
Sunday, 24 September 2023
The Provost. John Conway
The immensity of space and time can cultivate an attitude of awe and wonder. But awe and wonder might also be our response to the emergence of life, of breath, of thought, in you and I, and on this planet
Jonah 3.10-4.11; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
On the front of your service sheets is an image that some of you may recognise, even given its rather poor reproduction – rendered as it is black and white from colour. It’s the first image released of a black hole; created by putting together images from several telescopes orbiting the earth, through the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration. The image was released in 2019. Even the original is fairly blurry – the black hole is the centre, outlined by the emissions of light and other radiation from the swirling hot gases that orbit around it. The central circle marks what is called the event horizon. This is the distance at which the gravitational pull from the immensely dense centre of the black hole that has been formed by a collapsing star, that gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape but is sucked into the centre, including light and other radiation. Hence it is entirely black, because no light can escape to show us what is there. So the brightness around that black hole is light that is just far enough away to have the momentum to escape that gravitational pull and so travel through space, even towards us. And so that light arrives, 55 million years later to be seen by these telescopes.
This black hole is in a galaxy called M87. There is a supermassive black hole at the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, but this black hole in M87 is far enough away, and discernible through everything else in space, to be imaged. As I say, the light has taken 55 million years to reach us – as is the way with cosmology you are not just looking through space but back in time with these images. Mind you, the latest estimates for the age of the universe as a whole are usually given at around 14 billion years; that is 14,000 million years. And so this black hole is relatively new, and therefore relatively near to us. The word ‘relatively’, however, is doing quite a lot of work in that sentence. 55 million years ago is a few million years after the dinosaurs became extinct, and about the time when birds first appeared on earth. And it is so far away that, even though it is a massive object, it is a huge technological challenge to record this image. It is, I was told, the equivalent of someone in Edinburgh using a telescope to read the newspaper print of someone sat in New York’s Central Park. This relatively close black hole is still unimaginably far away, in the even more unimaginable vastness of space and time that is our universe.
We are in the season of Creation-time, and this is creation – this universe of space and time: vast, vast distances, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, and so much we yet do not understand.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said, ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.’ And he lived a long time before the true size of our expanding universe was understood. ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.’ It’s a quote that expresses an understandable response to the immensity of space, no matter how wonderful and mysterious science also reveals it to be. We are inevitably left to ponder our significance; this life we live, that can seem tiny in the context of the 7 billion other human lives on our planet, nevermind in the context of that same planet being a tiny part of a solar system, orbiting a relatively small star in one corner of a galaxy of billions of other stars, that is itself only one galaxy amongst millions of other galaxies. It is not hard to see reasons for our insignificance in the immensity of space; to think of talk of a creator, of purpose and meaning, and love, as preposterous, presumptuous, in the face of that immensity. And that might leave us, alongside Pascal, terrified at times.
In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard that we heard as our Gospel today, Jesus offers a picture of hardworking labourers protesting that generosity is being shown to those whose labour has been insignificant compared to theirs; the same gift has been given to those who arrive at the last minute, and that doesn’t seem fair or equitable.
Now I don’t think that Jesus had the immensities of space and time in mind when he told this parable, but at the very least it suggests that our usual way of viewing things is not God’s way of viewing things; that our measures of significance may not be God’s. And just as Jesus seeks to overturn the worldview of his hearers – suggesting that fairness may not, after all be the best measure of God’s grace – so I would like to suggest that, when it comes to space and time, we too perhaps need our perspectives overturned.
Immensity can cultivate an attitude of awe and wonder of course. But awe and wonder might also be the response to the emergence of life, of breath, of thought, in you and I, and on this planet. We have no idea, really, of the extent to which life might exist elsewhere in our vast universe – we might be alone. And yet, here we are – capable of reflecting on that immensity of space, exploring its mysteries and its possibilities. If we – this earth - is the only manifestation of such life, then how precious, how significant is that? What a gift it is that each of us, we collectively, carry. Significance may then lie in the preciousness of that gift, that life; and what we do with it, all the more freighted with possibility, purpose, meaning.
The Eucharistic Prayer we will use this morning for Creation-time was offered last year for the first time by the Episcopal Church’s Liturgy Committee. I think it still needs a bit of further shaping and editing, but its invitation into awe and wonder at creation is welcome. It also includes a line that I think is particularly helpful as we think through and respond to the immensities of space and our significance in that. We will hear, during our Eucharistic Prayer, that ‘you formed humanity in your own image, and entrusted us with the priesthood of your Creation’
The priesthood of your creation. I invite you to ponder that as it is an interesting alternative to somewhat tired, and probably inadequate ideas of our stewardship of the earth, which is an alternative often given. The priesthood of your creation roots our response to God’s gift of life in our universal priesthood. Priesthood here is not something that belongs solely to those who are often called priests, rather it is at the core of our vocation, our purpose, as humans. Priests are those who bring into focus and so offer to God the praises of all. On Tuesday, when Janet is ordained to the Presbyterate, we will be recognising and celebrating the gifts in her that make her someone who can help bring all our praises into focus and help offer those to God. But that priesthood in her is only an example of, a living out, of a much wider and deeper priesthood that belongs to us all – the priesthood that brings into focus and offers to God the praise and prayer of all creation throughout space and time. That is our gift and our significance – to be those who are conscious of the gift of life, in all its preciousness, within us. To be those who can articulate and express that, who can recognise its origin in God our Maker, and so offer our awe, wonder and praise. And seek to tend and nourish that life in all its preciousness and significance in the vast immensity of space. Amen.