The Priory Church, Bolton Abbey

Revd Jonathan Cain: Cosmic God

07 January 2018
Epiphany
Revd Jonathan Cain
Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.

Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.

But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

(Christ in the Universe, a poem by Alice Meynell)

As many of you know, I lost my dad just before Christmas. As most of you will also know, memories of those we love and see no longer are often triggered by meetings with other people, events, things we see, or hear, or read. When I came across this poem, Christ in the Universe by Alice Meynell over Christmas, it sparked a memory; I thought, “I wish I could have shared this with dad.”

The poem, written in about 1917, reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my dad in the pub about five years ago. Most of our pub conversations were about football, family, politics – the usual, but this particular conversation was about God and the Universe, and he was sharing some of the more fantastical questions he had about life on other planets, extra-terrestrials, aliens. These questions were preventing him from engaging fully with the idea of incarnation, God here with us in the person of Jesus Christ, because on a cosmic scale the story of a Jewish baby, in a small town near Jerusalem 2000 years ago sounded too small; too domestic. In defence of the Gospel I felt duty bound to throw in to our conversation the less domestic details of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, angels, and a star that moved across the sky to lead visitors from the east, but I could see his point. The term often used by Christian academics for my dad’s questioning is the scandal of particularity. Why did God choose to reveal Godself in the particular form of a human being – the person of Jesus Christ, on this particular planet, at that particular time?

During the 2016-17 academic year the Cambridge-based priest-academic, Andrew Davison spent a year in Princeton, USA, on a NASA-sponsored project to consider the societal implications of astrobiology; his particular research interest being the theological implications of life elsewhere in the Universe. A revisit if you will of Alice Meynell’s poetic imagining 100 years ago, this time funded by our planets largest space agency.

The trigger for this research interest was the relatively recent discovery of planets around other stars. Since that discovery 25 years ago, subsequent observation has revealed that most stars are circled by planets. The observable Universe contains one septillion stars (that’s a very big number with 24 zeros), surrounded by an even greater number of orbiting planets. Given these very large numbers Davison suggests that it is probable that there is some life out there that has evolved to sentience – “knowing itself and its creator, and its responsibilities, and perhaps sinning, and being redeemed.” We might wonder how alien species have come to know their creator, how God has revealed Godself across the Universe. Perhaps a shooting star is a signal that some alien star-gazers are making a pilgrimage in a distant galaxy, across a planet like earth, to witness some new revelation of the divine …

Letting our mind wander like this might lead us to awe and wonder at God, the creator of the Universe which is miraculous, beautiful and not fully knowable. Yet on this ambiguous earth, God invites us to gaze not at the stars, but at his bestowal here; the arresting and fitting story foretold by Jewish prophets, of a vulnerable young woman and her baby, heralded by angels, adored by shepherds, worshipped by kings, and hunted by a tyrant.

Science fiction increasingly gives way to observable probability, but the ‘truth’ that such observation reveals will only ever be partial. The truth revealed by the Christ-child, a miraculous act of divine love, is the truth which allows us to know ourselves and to know God. The truth revealed by Jesus, the crucified and resurrected one, is the truth that frees us from our failings and brings us the hope that we and our loved ones will share Christ’s life everlasting.

… and we will still have questions … and that’s ok, but we pray for hearts open to embrace the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us; hearts open to be embraced by the love of God that is cosmic in scale and domestic in intimacy.

I’m going to finish as I started, with a poem, this time by Malcolm Guite. It’s called the Magi.

It might have been just someone else’s story;
Some chosen people get their special king,
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In palaces, found those who sold and bought him,
But in a filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

(Epiphany, the Magi, a sonnet by Malcolm Guite)

Amen.