Thought for Preparation:
“The cosmos is within us.
We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
For your meditation, and to prepare our hearts for Advent, I want to offer two images.
The first is a memory: I was in Black Mesa, national park in Oklahoma, in the pan handle on the Texas boarder, close to Colorado and New Mexico. This place was so abandoned that there it was hard to find the person in charge of the state park campsites to check us in. When night fell my two friends and I had finished cooking our food around the campfire and we noticed the darkness drenched completely around us. There was no artificial light. So without flashlights, we walked our way up a small hiking look out. Mesa means table in Spanish, and the geographical structures look like mountains with their tops cut off, so on higher elevation, our view was unobstructed. We rested our heads close to each other to look up and saw a cosmic reality that took our breath away. This is the first image of Advent I want to offer us. We saw the curve of the earth. Shooting starts every 30 seconds, the ethereal dust of the Milkway galaxy. Many of you are nodding—we know this feeling. A vast night sky. The feeling of transcendence, feeling small, wonder, awe, curiosity, connection. It offers a perspective shift.
The second image of Advent is different in scope and size, but an experience that has a similar effect, of shifting us, reorienting us, bringing us in tune with the preciousness of life. The second image is: Holding a child in your arms and smelling the head of this new born baby.
These are spiritual experiences of Advent. We look up at the stars or we hold a child in our arms and we feel awe and wonder. We feel the preciousness of life, and we feel infinite and part of it all. Our perspective shifts. These experiences of Advent are like a deep cleanse for the soul. Detox of all that is extraneous. Advent helps us pause, and venture into dark places with curiosity and love. Advent is more than a coded churchy word for pre-Christmas; it is a time to prepare our for the symbolic breaking in of cosmic love into our hearts and lives. Holding these two images together, of a vast night sky and of a baby, we affirm the connection we have with one another and with the whole universe.
We are achy, vulnerable human bodies, and we are also as vast as the night sky. Carl Sagan says, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star-stuff.”
But what is star-stuff? Professor of science at Harvard, Lisa Randall writes and speaks about a phenomenon in our universe called “dark matter.” Dark matter, which Lisa might rename transparent matter, is the longest standing problem of modern physics. 85% of the matter that is detectable in our universe is dark matter, and we can’t necessarily experience it… it doesn’t interact with our senses or with light, but it is passing through us and around us all the time. It only reveals itself to us through its gravity. Lisa Randall wrote the recent book, “Dark matter and Dinosaurs,” and she says, when reflecting on almost 30 years of astrophysics and cosmology research, Lisa writes, “I was awe struck and enchanted not only by our current knowledge of our environment local, solar, galactic, and universal, but also to how much we ultimately hope to understand from our random tiny perch here on earth. I was also overwhelmed by the many connections among pieces that ultimately allow us to exist. To be clear, mine is a deeply unreligious viewpoint; I don’t feel the need to assign a purpose or meaning, yet I can’t help but feel the emotions we tend to call religious as we come to understand the immensity of the universe our past and how it all fits together. It offers anyone some perspective when dealing with the foolishness of everyday life.” Lisa says, “We often fail to notice things we are not expecting.”
Jesus in the Gospel of Luke would agree with Lisa.
Jesus describes all this cosmic stuff happening, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and he stars.” There will be distress among nations, fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
But I think the oddest part about this, is even with all this cosmic signs and distress among nations on the earth, and even with the symbol of the son of man coming powerfully on a cloud, that it is possible to miss it. It won’t be like a parade coming through town. It is surely coming, but it is possible for it to pass over us and for us to miss it. We hear Lisa’s words, “We often fail to notice things we are not expecting.”
Jesus says, kind of like our scientist of the day Lisa, when these things come, “Stand up and raise your heads” “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength.”
Be alert, be curious, look around. Because the kingdom of God is near. When there is conflict and distress, God is especially around and present, but we need to pay close attention, because we might miss it, or think the opposite is at play—that God has abandoned the world.
Our culture propels us into a gravitational pull inward…. to rest our hearts and minds on the anxieties and dramas bubbling up, isolating us, even when we have unifying and common experiences, making us to feel as if we are the only one who suffers or has depression or has lost someone. Advent invites us to pause. To shift or re-orient our perspective. And to allow hope to rest wings on our hearts. To remember that the dark night of the soul, the bleeding heart, the loss of a loved one; these are profoundly religious experiences. When someone dies we say, “with sure and certain hope in eternal life.” A vast night sky re-orients us, makes our senses alert in new ways, and expands our soul. Hope is a thing with feathers, what rests on the Soul, Emily Dickinson reminds us.
This season then, is in hope of what we cannot see, of what is not always detectable, in anticipation of what we can somehow miss. We have the opportunity together in advent, to lift up our heads, to be alert, and to expect hopeful things
Each week during Advent a different one of my mother’s “Nebula Painting” will be displayed in The Sanctuary. I had to twist her arm to let me do this, because she is a humble person and does not always find her art worthy of display. But I am inspired by these paintings, and I think you will be too. When the Hubble Space Telescope began photographing exploded star structures called “nebulas,” my mother felt as if those gorgeous colors and shapes look like a version of Spirit or God that she could connect with. They looked like a cosmic home to her; the workings of a benevolent universe. One of these paintings sits in my office. She even said to me, which freaked me out at the time, when she first discovered these nebula images, “that is where I will go when I die.”
My hope is that each week, when viewing a colorful and bold nebula painting in the Sanctuary, we will see the crèche along side of it, and we will hold both the infinite and the finite together in balance, as we prepare the way to welcome the child of Jesus into our hearts.
We await the Christ child in Advent, and we testify together, that this child was, and is again, cosmic love breaking into our particular earth. Christ became incarnate. The stars became earth dust, the fruit of Mary’s womb became cosmic. The finite linked arms with the infinite and walked in lockstep. With sure and certain hope in eternal life, we have a mystical connection to the cosmos, and this is a reality to be woken up during Advent. Let it be so, Amen.