Br. James Michael Dowd, OHC
RCL – Proper 28 C – Sunday 14 November 2010
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
I Am About To Create New Heavens and a New Earth
Ancient peoples have long studied both the stars and the concept of time and have found them to be somehow related to one another, though that relationship is often wondrously clouded in mystery. Christians are, of course, an ancient people. And monastics are among the most ancient of Christians. And we monastics have for nearly the entire history of our faith, been looking to the sky and to the past and to the end times to understand our faith in the present.
And so, this week, as I was preparing my sermon and focusing particularly on the passages from Isaiah and Luke, with their revelations of end times and new orders, I was thrilled by an article that appeared in the New York Times, and in many scientific journals. I'd like to read to you from the first few paragraphs of the way Space.com reported on a new discovery:
Scientists have detected two gigantic bubbles of high-energy radiation spilling out from the Milky Way's center that may have erupted from a super-massive black hole.And so, it seems, the discipline of astronomy has as mysterious a revelation in this latest find, as does the discipline of theology in the context of our readings today. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” from Isaiah and “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately” from Luke, seem to all be summed up in the statement of Jesus that “there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
The mysterious structures each span 25,000 light years across, meaning that together they cover more than half the area of the visible sky, and are emitting gamma rays, the highest energy wavelength of light.
The bulbous features may be evidence of a burst of star formation a few million years ago, researchers said. Or they may have been produced when a super-massive black hole in the center of our galaxy gobbled up a bunch of gas and dust.
The newly discovered structures remain an enigma for now, scientists said. “We don't fully understand their nature or origin” said study leader Doug Finkbeiner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“I am about to create...” sounds to me like an imminent event, something that will happen in the very short term. “The end will not follow immediately” sounds more like an event that will occur in the future – perhaps a considerable amount of time into the future.
And so all of this, the article regarding the giant bubble emitting gamma rays, the highest wavelength of light; and today's Scriptures, the promise of the light of heaven ever expanding throughout the universe, has me studying the sky and meditating on various concepts of time – just like the ancient monks.
And so, first I wanted to go back and study up a little on the definition of a light-year, which is actually a phrase that is used for the casual astronomer, not the scientist. Astronomers actually prefer the term parsec, which is, apparently, a more precise way of measuring. But for our purposes this morning, a light-year is, according to the International Astronomical Union, the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one Julian year.
One light year is equal to six trillion miles. Meaning that these “bubbles” that have been found are equal to 150 trillion miles each, for a total of 300 trillion miles. God's Name be praised!
Trying to comprehend all of that is really not much easier than trying to comprehend the idea of time that is presented to us in the Gospel of Luke. In the passage that we read today, just fourteen verses, some aspect of time, either in the past or in the present, is mentioned seven times. This obsession with time that the Gospel writer seems to have certainly grabbed my attention.
In poking around for some theological explanation of time, I came across an essay written by a Father Patrick Reardon, an Eastern Orthodox priest from Chicago entitled, “Chronos and Kairos.” These are two words used in Greek for “time.” What we English speakers use one word for – time – the Greeks use two words for.
Chronos is the word used to describe “time on the move, time as before and after, time as the future passing through the present and so becoming the past.” The English words chronic, chronicle, and chronology derive from chronos. “Measurement is one of the distinguishing characteristics of chronos, which is a quantitative concept. Time that cannot be measured is not chronos.”
Kairos, on the other hand, is “qualitative rather than quantitative...[it is] significant rather than dimensional.” It cannot be measured because it implies the idea of quality, rather than quantity. It cannot be measured, Father Reardon tells us, because kairos is always a now. A now is, and can only be, the present moment. I think now can't be measured, or held onto, or even fully understood. Now is mystery and it is all we have.
And that leads me back to our readings from the Prophet Isaiah and from St. Luke. These are two of God's children who know how to communicate mystery. And the mystery we are contemplating today is none other than theosis - what St. Athanasius explained as “The Son of God becoming man, so that man might become god.” That, I think, is what the creation of new heavens and a new earth is all about. That is, what the wolf and the lamb feeding together is all about, that is what nothing being allowed to hurt or destroy on God's holy mountain is all about. It is a total remaking of the entire cosmos into God.
So if some of us, like myself, are all caught up in the great mysteries, in kairos, in the cosmos, how do all of us, including myself, live a life of faith in a world in which we must earn our own keep, make our own way, and tend to the daily grind just to keep body and soul together.
Enter St. Paul. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, he makes it quite clear when he exhorts the members of that community to “do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” And on top of that, they are not to be “weary of doing what is right.” Work is holy. It is good.
This was a particularly popular theme with our ancient father in the faith, St. Benedict – who gave us the Holy Rule that our community lives by today. What he called the opus dei, the work of God is, first and foremost, the worship of God. That's why we come here into this church to do what we do five times a day in our Offices and in the Holy Eucharist. Our entire being is to be made available to God each and every day so that we can be remade into God.
And this Holy Eucharist that we celebrate today is the exact kairos – the exact now – when all this will take place. For we are only given the now – this kairos – and to spend our now worshiping God and opening ourselves to the reality of being changed into Christ's Body is to open ourselves to the greatest act of faith.
This obedience to listen to God, a monk's first vow, in order to be totally stable within the now, a monk's second vow, is what brings about our conversion into Christ's Body, a monk's third vow. Monastic vows are a little sacrament that point all of God's people to the ultimate reality of Isaiah's vision. That reality in which within each one of us and throughout the cosmos, new heavens and a new earth are being created even as I speak to you. The discovery of two giant bubbles at the center of the Milky Way emitting the highest wavelength of light is a sacrament that point to that reality as well.
In fact, all of God's Creation is a sign that we are indeed in the End Times. That Time when all of Creation is transformed into the exact image that God desires – an image of love, an image of peace. This is not marked in chronos – we do not know in chronological time if the End will come tomorrow or in 10,000 years, or in a million years. But we do know this great Reality, our ultimate destination is in the act of becoming. All we have to do is read the signs being trumpeted from every news outlet: wars and insurrections; earthquakes, plagues and famines; God's people being arrested, tortured, persecuted and murdered in places like Iraq and China.
But the only way to get to this, our Future, is to live in the now. To be present to God who makes himself available to us right here in the now. Our liturgy this morning is the perfect sacrament for us to live into the now. In this gathering, where more than two or three have assembled, we know that we can see Jesus present among us. In the Scriptures we just heard, we know that the Word is being made into our own flesh. In the Eucharist that we are about to share, we know that God will transform bread and wine into Christ's Presence, allowing us to eat and drink that Presence and so be recreated into that presence.
Ancient people have ancient wisdom, given to us by God, proclaimed by the Prophets, fulfilled in Christ. This is a wisdom that transforms all of God's Creation into new heavens and a new earth right here in the now. When we hear Father Bede preside at the altar shortly, we are going to hear him pray “Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being: sun, moon, stars; earth, winds, and waters; and every living thing.” Then, a little later, we will hear him pray “Now gathered at your table, O God of all creation, and remembering Christ, crucified and risen, who was and is and is to come.”
When we pray those words with Bede we are uniting the past, present, and future, indeed all of creation, into the now in a great mystery that reminds me of those gamma rays emitting the highest wavelength of light. But no matter how great those wavelengths are, they cannot possibly compare to the wavelength of light that is from God, that is God, in which God allows us to bask. A Light that is in the very act of changing us into light, right here in the now.