We Are the Astronomers (Homily)
December 23, 2007
Fourth Sunday of Advent
I’ve been able to do some reading and watch a few movies this Advent, and I wanted to share one of those books with you and one of those movies. The book is the new biography of Albert Einstein. The movie is the movie Bella.
The Einstein biography is a terrific book, wonderfully well written, and reading it I realized for the first time what a huge influence Einstein has been on me, and on all of us. He died the year that I was born, 1955, and he’s just always been in my head. He’s in our cultural imagination, I think, as the figure of the Great Man, as the figure of the Genius, and as the figure of science--of science understood as completely rational and impossible to argue with.
Einstein believed in God, but he did not believe in miracles. He believed in laws, vast and immutable laws that not even the creator of the universe could break, and I think that’s the image of science that’s gotten into all of us, and the image of truth. It’s why we have such problems reading the Bible sometimes, with its belief in miracles and, more improbably, with its belief in a God who knows and loves us all by name.
Again, as always, it’s that famous poster of the Milky Way, all these swirling stars, with an arrow pointing at one little speck: you are here.
But that’s what we believe. We believe that this one little speck in the swirl of stars is infinitely beloved after all.
Einstein famously said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, but we think that he does. We think He threw some dice over a stable in Bethlehem, on a day just like this one, out of the blue. Or it’s not that God plays dice exactly, but that he plays. He dances. He sings. He creates. He does whatever he feels like doing, in all freedom and creativity, and out of that freedom and creativity a light comes into our darkness. And not just a light, not just an impersonal, universal energy, but a light that is a love, a person who knows us and cares for us.
The movie Bella explains one way that this works.
I think we have a much too limited and immature notion of what a miracle is. Somehow we think a miracle has to be big and it has to be obvious, and so we think miracles don’t happen anymore and never did.
But the movie Bella shows us otherwise. It’s about a Mexican man in New York, a cook, who in the middle of a work day takes the time to care for a coworker who has gotten pregnant, an unmarried coworker, a woman in a world of hurt who doesn’t want the baby and doesn’t have anybody to turn to.
I had the heard that the movie was sort of an antiabortion story and I hadn’t really wanted to go, not because I’m in favor of abortion, but because I don’t like cheesy and sentimental stories, or propaganda. But that’s not what the movie is. For one thing, it doesn’t oversimplify the characters and it doesn’t deny the suffering in the world around them. For another thing, the main character, the Mexican cook--whose name, not incidentally, is Jose--this character doesn’t preach at the woman and doesn’t judge the woman. He never tells her what to do. He just spends time with her. He listens to her. He looks at her with respect--and with the most beautiful eyes, Barb says, she’s ever seen. She says that she’d follow him anywhere. And in the end, the movie keys not mostly on what the woman decides to do but on what the man decides to do, on how, rather than judging and condemning, he decides to make a sacrifice of his own, an individual, personal sacrifice.
He’s exactly like the Jose in the gospel today, the Joseph, and this is the miracle--not the star that shines later but the personal choice of a single human being in a difficult situation. A man who dreams a dream and listens to that dream. A man who doesn’t do what the culture would expect and approve.
He takes Mary in. He marries her anyway, in the midst of all this social judgment and personal uncertainty.
That’s the miracle: that Joseph acts freely and creatively. He breaks the laws, of society and of the universe, and he’s not the only one. That’s not the only time
I know someone who has adopted a handicapped child. I know someone who cares for an aged parent. I know people who fly to Central America and serve in a clinic, for free. I know people who started an orphanage, and people who raise money for that orphanage, and who never call attention to themselves doing it. I know people who bring communion to the sick. I know people who serve luncheons after every funeral in the parish. I know people who make music at mass after mass, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. I know people who work at the Crisis Pregnancy Care Center. I know people who bring flowers to their wives. I know people who read to their children. I know someone who donated a kidney to a sibling. I know someone who donated bone marrow. I know someone who smiles. I know someone who reaches out and touches me on the shoulder. Calls me “buddy.”
Into our ordinary daily lives there come moments for us to serve others out of our own talent and work and capacity, in our own ways, and the miracle is that so many among us choose to do that, to respond, in their freedom and creativity. That’s the miracle, and it’s only our smallness of imagination and of mind that keeps us from seeing it, that insists on some sort of silly special effect before we can consent to believing in a loving God.
Yes, God loves us. We see it and we feel it in our love for each other. No, the laws of the universe don’t roll over us, inexorably. We act against them. We act in love. We act in charity. We act in laughter and in hope.
The irony, of course, is that Einstein could never complete his Unified Field Theory. The quantum world he opened up has proven too complex to be contained. The deeper we get the more unpredictable and mysterious the particles become. No one can say for sure where any one particle will go, and that’s a miracle, too, this variety, this inner subtlety and movement.
But it’s only a small part of the larger, human miracle, the miracle of the Nativity, the miracle of all the new life that we allow to enter into us, and that we nourish and protect, and the miracle of our own lives, too, our own unique, given, individual lives.
Yes, astronomically speaking, we are insignificant. But astronomically speaking, we are the astronomers--and that’s God’s gift to us, through our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the miracle and the gift. The gift of our minds. The gift of our hearts. The gift of our wills.