Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN I


‘Twenty thousand kilometres; two thousand dollars.’

Like us, the signora in the pensione had travelled to Assisi for Christmas. Her annual highlight was driving herself 60 kilometres. She had never been further from home than her annual trip south.

She kept wondering aloud in Italian the statistics of our journey:

Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. 

The world is a big place, and our overnight flight from Perth to Italy had disguised how huge the distance to Assisi is. It is, as for our friend the signoraa cause of wonder.

Scientists tell us there are 300 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The size of one star, one sun is hard to imagine. The trip from Perth to Assisi would take only a fraction of the sun’s circumference. 300 stars are hard enough to imagine, but 300 billion… Then, astronomers estimate, there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies. How many stars there must be.  My digital calculator puts it at 4.5e16 stars. The number is meaningless, staggering in its scope.

Many scientists then tell us that our universe may be one only of an infinite procession of universes, coming in and out of existence at a fantastic rate. At this point, I’ve lost the power of imagination completely. The best I can do is stand outside and gaze at the night sky. I see red Mars, 10 years of rapid travel away. I see bright Southern Cross 350 years ago, its light just now reaching me, light that started on its journey when Charles II finally became king and the 1662 Prayer Book was promulgated.

This colossal creation can be a starting point in our journey searching for heaven. No, I am not suggesting that heaven is a place, perhaps hiding behind one of Saturn’s moons or in a 10-lightyear distant galaxy! But such a startling and amazing universe can flex our sense of wonder. Like the signora at Assisi, we can contemplate over and over the complex and awe-inspiring cosmos of which we are part, and yield to wonder.

This is the universe our God is creating. Spectacular and lovely.  A Creator God of such power has intentions. He has an agenda that his beautiful universe should more and more reflect God’s own qualities of love and goodness.

And if God is prepared to pour Godself into the making of such a spectacular and lovely universe, we can begin to imagine how wonderful are God’s intentions for you and me: to be more and more the love, goodness and beauty we discern in the physical universe. In fact, God promises it. God promises that we shall see face to face. (I Corinthians 13:12) God promises that his agenda for us is better, more delightful, more caring than anything we can imagine, just as his universe is more than we can imagine (I Corinthians 2:9)

Venti mila chilometri300 billion stars, God of a wondrous universe. Let us find heaven in our wonder.

Laudato Si’


My hymn

re-posted from https://franciscanhymns.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/hymn-of-saint-francis/

to honour Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’

Praise to Most High for sun so warm,
for moon and stars so bright;
praise to Most High for all that form,
the universe of light!

Praise to Most High for sparkling dawn,
for sunset splashed with gold;
praise to Most High for rich red soils,
and surf majestic rolled.

Praise to Most High for rain and wind,
for making new things grow;
praise to Most High for Mother Earth,
and  safe through death to go.

Praise to Most High for Jesus Christ,
His present power to heal;
praise to Most High that he was raised
and still his love falls real.

Praise to Most High for those we love,
and who are kind to us;
the gift of love we least deserve
is your sure sign to us.

Praise to Most High who shows the way:
love, joy, humility;
praise to Most High himself the gift,
our kindly Trinity.

8686 Tune “Nativity” TIS 204

© Ted Witham tssf 2008

St Francis praises God outside the Roman Catholic church in Collie, W.A.
St Francis praises God outside the Roman Catholic church in Collie, W.A.

Visible & Invisible


The Creed, as we recite it in the Eucharist week by week, proclaims the Father as the ‘Pantocrator’, the Maker of all things visible and invisible. The original Greek looks like this:

παντοκράτορα: ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων·.

Pantocrator

Wonderful words, often translated into wonderful art in Greek churches with Christ as Pantocrator painted in a huge dome dominating the church building as the Trinity is believed to dominate the Universe. The description of God’s creation as everything ‘seen’ (oratōn) and ‘unseen’ (aoratōn) shows that the writers of the Creed had a mighty insight into the nature of the Universe that scientists are only just unravelling.

SBS recently screened a documentary How Big is the Universe? This BBC documentary answered the question in three ways. It is bigger than we can see, one, because we can see only the objects that generate light. Scientists believe that there must be much more matter than can be seen: they call this invisible matter ‘dark matter’. The metaphor used in the program is of flying over the United States at night. You can see an outline of roads and streets lit up; but there is much more going in the dark than shown by the scaffold of light.

Second, telescopes can only ‘see’ 15 billion light-years into the past. What happened beyond is unseen, but that does not mean for scientists that it does not exist. This universe is in principle infinite in size.

Thirdly, it was initiated rather like a bubble, and the energy required to make one bubble could well have made many bubbles. There could be an incalculable number of unseen universes as well as our own. Proof of collisions between our own Universe and another of these ‘bubbles’ has been detected, giving credence to this theory.

In some ways, these distances are simply unimaginable, although in the past hundred years, most human beings have gone from imagining 20 miles as an impossibly long trip to imagining long-haul plane travel around the planet – 20 thousand miles from Perth to Québec in Canada.

The scientists ask us to stretch our imaginations to the size of the Universe: the writers of the Creed ask us to stretch to the size of God. In simplistic terms, if the Universe is so big, then God is bigger. God is celebrated as the Maker of the all things visible and invisible. Poiētēn is the Greek word for ‘Maker’, and you can see its connection to the English word ‘poet’. To be the Maker of all things visible and invisible requires not just a builder, but a Maker with huge imagination; a poet of the extremes.

Both science and creed move us to wonder. The question ‘How big is the Universe?’ morphs into an exclamation of joy, ‘How big is the Universe! How wonderful the Universe!’ And many of us would proclaim, ‘How amazing the Maker!’

courtesy BBC (“How Big is the Universe”)