Fourth Sunday of Easter–May 7, 2017
Many of us have been amazed recently by a picture of earth taken through Saturn’s rings. It was captured by a camera aboard the Cassini Spacecraft. It shows several very large rings and two distant pinpricks of light in a black background. Those pricks of light are earth and her moon.
Other images from the Hubble space telescope boggle the mind with their incredible beauty, vast distances, and light that has travelled for billions of years.
Last October there was an announcement from astronomers who now believe that instead of only 200 billion galaxies (that’s galaxies, not solar systems) – instead of only 200 billion galaxies there are ten times that many: 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. Our own Milky Way is but one of them.
Of course, we can look much closer to home to see the complexity and beauty of trees and birds, flowers and human kind. As the springtime takes us outdoors, we enjoy, once again, the sights, smells, and sounds of God’s amazing creation first hand.
I’m talking about the experience of “awe.” St. Luke wrote about the first years of the church following the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians were awed, he says.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. (Acts 2:42-43)
Awe is not generally listed as one of the requirements for the spiritual life. It’s not among the cardinal virtues nor it mentioned in the baptismal covenant. Micah’s well-known and oft-quoted summary is silent about awe:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Awe is not in the Ten Commandments nor is it mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. Although a good argument could be made that Jesus was referring to it when he said in Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28-29)
Awe is defined as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder.” Synonyms are wonder, admiration, reverence, amazement, astonishment, dread, and fear. The commonly used “awesome” in reference to a TV show or a fast food snack doesn’t begin to hold a candle to a vision of the universe or the complexities of the atom.
What drew me to think about awe was this part of the Acts text:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:44-47)
What motivates one to give up possessions, property, and wealth for the common good– shedding privilege, prerogatives, and power for the welfare of others? Even giving up Life itself? What drew Moses, the disciples, Jesus, St. Francis, Mother Teresa and all the other saints to a point that they would leave a life that they knew and the comforts that they had in order to walk another way?
I’m convinced that it was an experience of awe. Isn’t that what the passage says? “Awe came upon everyone.”
For Moses it was a burning bush that wasn’t consumed, and he knew that he stood on holy ground. Saul of Tarsus saw a blinding light and was knocked off his horse. The experiences are many and vary widely. That’s why awe isn’t in any list of requirements nor a plank in a covenant.
But awe is a pre-cursor to faith . . . an experience or set of experiences that convince one that there’s a mystery that is above, beyond, beneath all human knowing and comprehension. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it “radical amazement.” Call it divinity, the ground of being, the holy other, Love—but there arises a conviction that there is a More which we can only revere in amazement. Only then, can we sit loose to our own welfare and devote ourselves to the welfare of the other. Only then can we begin to loosen our grip and seek to follow and obey that which is More.
St Paul recounts the Christ hymn that comes from the earliest Christians. They understood that the human Jesus himself knew the awesome and humbling experience of standing in the presence of His Creator.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
As we look back at Earth from the perspective of Saturn, see ourselves among the trillions of galaxies, reflect on our narrow range of concerns in comparison to the powerful energy of the tiny atom—we can only bow in reverence. Because we know that we are in a holy place.
With lives filled with screens and phones and virtual realities—take time away to look up, pay attention to God’s creation with all your senses, and be radically amazed. Let an Alleluia escape your lips.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia.