Fr. James, did the star of Bethlehem really exist? This is one of the most common questions I get as a priest who also loves to gaze into the heavens. There was a time I would try to explain the multiple theories of what the star might have been. Christopher Graney posted a wonderful reflection on some of these ideas just a couple of days ago. Br. Guy has also put together a wonderful video on The Star Bethlehem. I am so happy that these two brilliant minds, along with others I have read and seen, have put together these reflections to share with you. One of the reasons I'm so happy is because I feel less inclined to delve homiletically into questions of star conjunctions, supernovae, and noonday phenomena at this point of my priesthood. Instead, I find it more fruitful to ask a different kind of question: What did the Magi seek? Stated another way, What did the Magi find?
On the surface, the answer to this question (or questions) seems rather simple: They were looking for Jesus. Yet, a powerful lesson I have learned from faith and science is that it is one thing to encounter or "find" something, but another thing to understand that encounter to its depths.
For example, I sometimes encounter well-educated parishioners who presume Jesus was a zealot in light of a popular book that embraces this thesis. The question often is stated, "Father, how can we, as Catholics, square an ethic of peace and non-violence with a Savior who was a political revolutionary?" I would agree that Jesus is revolutionary, but my retort usually begs the question, "How can an author claiming Jesus to be zealot square this thesis with Jesus' call to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us?"
When reading Scripture, it becomes clear that Jesus' innermost circle did not understand his mission and his person until after the resurrection. Some thought he was a teacher. Some thought he was a prophet. And, dare I say, there were some that wanted Jesus to be a zealot who would establish a "New Jerusalem" through military conquest. These misunderstanding of Jesus come to a head when he asks his own followers, "Who do people say that I am?" Even when Peter gets the answer "right" by saying, you are Christ, the Son of the living God, his insight is quickly met with chastisement when he tries to tell Jesus that Messiahs shouldn't suffer and die. This reminds me of another lesson I've learned from faith and science: Even when you get it right, you probably got it wrong.
Returning to our stargazing Magi, what were they looking for? An insight into this question comes by way of the gifts they bear of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was the customary gift to present to a king. Therefore, it becomes clear that the Magi were looking for a newborn king.
At first, the gift of kingly gold may seem to support the thesis that Jesus was a militaristic zealot. However, when we add frankincense to the gift registry, things start to take on a different shape. Frankincense was the gift that was customary to give to a priest. In light of this, the Magi were not just looking for a king, but a king who also was to have a priestly ministry.
Still, these gifts don't give us the full picture of Jesus. I could easily think of a priest-king who would justify military violence through divine interdict. That is where the gift my myrrh comes in. Myrrh was used in the ancient world as a preservative and fumigant for a body after death. If we were to recast the three gifts in modern terms, Jesus would have received gold, frankincense, and embalming fluid. I don't know about you, but if a complete stranger would give a child of mine embalming fluid as a gift, I would be suspicious of these Magi to say the least!
What was the symbolism of myrrh? When read with the gifts of gold and frankincense, it points to a prophetic promise from Isaiah of a priest-king who would suffer vicariously on behalf of the people, making of himself the sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. He would be gentle and quiet like a lamb led to the slaughter. We would experience healing through the suffering he endured. I could go on, but the conclusion would still be the same: These eastern stargazing Magi who were not of the tradition that was looking for Jesus got it right!
This reflection points to yet another lesson from faith and science: Though our faith firmly embraces that all things came from the same Creator, the way we come to know the Creator can be achieved in various ways. Some may find this statement suspicious, wishing to remind me that Jesus is the sheep-gate, the only pathway to salvation. I would agree with this statement. Yet, we also need to remember that Jesus identifies himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, any sincere investigation into truth is ultimately an exploration of the source of truth. Any time we step outside of the darkness of our ignorance and sin, seeking a moment of illumination through studying the natural world or the supernatural world, we are seeking him who is the light guiding our journey: Even if that light is too intense at first and causes us to spiritually squint in our ignorance. Yet, in time, our spiritual eyes adjust, allowing us to slowly see him who is our source and summit, our Alpha and Omega, and him who is the destination of our journey. Let's face it - We're all Magi!
Spiritual Exercise: What do you seek in your life? What is the light that guides you through the darkness of our world? Do you presume to know the full extent of the light you seek or are you willing to humble your heart, presume ignorance, and allow this light to penetrate your innermost being? Pray that your quest toward truth be met with the source of truth. May you find not only the historical infant Christ, but him who is priest, prophet, and king, establishing a Kingdom of love, peace, and nonviolence.
I want to let you in on a little secret. It's a secret that, for those who are Christians that observe Advent, was reflected upon this past weekend. It's a secret that was shared between Mary and Elizebeth from the Gospel of Luke. As Scripture shares with us, Mary went in haste to see her cousin Elizabeth since the angel announced to Mary that both she and her cousin were pregnant. Is the secret I speak of about two women who just found out they are expecting a baby? Don't get me wrong, I have had a taste of that excitement as former students of mine have called me in the past to share with me that they are expecting a child and ask me to do two things: The Baptism after they are born and not to tell anyone - especially their parents. However, that isn't the secret I speak of.
So, then, what is this great "secret" that I'm trying to tantalize you with? The answer that would have been plainly understood by both Mary and Elizabeth is hidden in the song Mary sings to Elizabeth after Elizabeth tells Mary that she is humbled to be in the presence of Jesus' mother.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55)
Some often think of this song to be an extemporaneous, charismatic prayer by Mary. It wasn't. Similar to when you drive to work and that one song comes on that speaks deeply to who you are, Mary was singing a song that would have been know to any of the Children of Israel at that time: The Song of Hannah that was sung long before Mary's praise issued from her lips, giving praise to God for the birth of her son Samuel.
My heart exults in the LORD,
my horn is exalted by my God.
I have swallowed up my enemies;
I rejoice in your victory.
There is no Holy One like the LORD;
there is no Rock like our God
Speak boastfully no longer,
Do not let arrogance issue from your mouths.
For an all-knowing God is the LORD,
a God who weighs actions.
“The bows of the mighty are broken,
while the tottering gird on strength.
The well-fed hire themselves out for bread,
while the hungry no longer have to toil.
The barren wife bears seven sons,
while the mother of many languishes.
“The LORD puts to death and gives life,
casts down to Sheol and brings up again.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich,
humbles, and also exalts.
He raises the needy from the dust;
from the ash heap lifts up the poor,
To seat them with nobles
and make a glorious throne their heritage.
“For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and he has set the world upon them.
He guards the footsteps of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall perish in the darkness;
for not by strength does one prevail.
The LORD’s foes shall be shattered;
the Most High in heaven thunders;
the LORD judges the ends of the earth.
May he give strength to his king,
and exalt the horn of his anointed!” (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
Again, you might ask, "What is the secret these 'songs' sing that has got Fr. James so jazzed up?" To recast the secret in today's language: Mary and Elizabeth knew the secret that Christmas had already come - it was in their wombs - John the Baptism in Elizabeth's womb - Jesus in Mary's womb. Now, similar to my former students who swear me to secrecy about the baby to come until they can announce it to their families, so, too, is this secret a hidden one. Mary and Elizabeth were the only two, save Joseph and Zachariah, who would have fully grasped the power of this moment. Nevertheless, we have the honor to sit with Mary and Elizabeth and share in their excitement of both the joy of newborn children to come and the keeping of a promise that God had made throughout all of human history after the Fall.
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then he said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:10-14)
During Advent, we light four candles, three purple and one rose. They symbolize both our waiting for Christ's final return in glory and our preparation for Christmas. The history of the symbol is from the northernmost parts of Europe and the Yule season. The tradition was that the people would light candles during the time the sun would disappear in the northernmost regions, marking time until the Sun would return over the horizon again.
For Christians, this symbol is transformed to show that in a world of "darkness" that knows brokenness, we wait for Christ to break in with his "light" and "re-order" our world. Put another way, our nights that knew no stars turns to the rising Son of God, a star so bright that even night is turned to day. Our world NEEDS Christmas. Not the Christmas of how much was spent on the diamond neckless or the Christmas of whether or not the kids got all the toys they wanted. We need a Christmas to allow the love and mercy offered in Jesus Christ to turn our spiritual nights into day. On this Christmas, then, let us look to the morning star. Not a celestial object that we know well and admire, but to the risen Son - Jesus Christ. And I wish to extend to you a most Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!
The image above is a representation of three dispositions of heart the human person has toward creation:
Consume, Conserve, and Curate.
From the standpoint of Consume, it is a basic fact that the human person does need to consume certain things from creation to survive and advance as a people. Yet, we also know that consumption without moral restraints can lead to exploitation, wastefulness, and harming human dignity as the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" gets wider and wider. Consumerism also leads to an isolationist mentality in which the more we consume the more "self-centered" we approach life. Regard for how our life choices impact others is lessened, replaced by the ethic of "What is good for me is what is morally correct." This radical relativism creates deep conflicts between people and nations.
From the standpoint of Conserve, the call of Pope Francis to care for creation is deeply rooted in conservation. In the United States, what is often missed in the debate between renewable energy sources and fossil fuels is conservation. The cultural debate I often hear is, "We will have so many more people in our country in the future, so we need more energy, so we can't rely on fossil fuels alone, so we need robust renewables so we don't run out of fossil fuels." There is nothing in this statement I would disagree with. I would simply point out that there is no mention of a very important first step: How can we reduce our level of consumption, conserving our current energy production first, then explore the question of renewable versus fossil fuels? My fear is that the mere development of renewable energy sources with no attention given to conservation will simply lead to a more ramped consumerism, not addressing the core disposition of heart that has created our problem in the first place.
From the standpoint of Curate, this is where we move from the functional and moral to the spiritual. Something that needs to be added to our reflection on the relationship between consumption and conservation is the human person's call to be Curator, or steward of creation. When I think of a curator, they live a life of painstaking attention to masterpieces that have been created so that the integrity of the creator's work is protected and generations to come will have access to the master's original masterpiece. Every good curator knows that if they do their job, the works of art they care for will outlive them. In a similar way, we need to have a curator's heart when it comes to care for creation. We need to realize the painstaking attention needed to protect the integrity of the Creator's work, allowing it to sustain, support, and delight generations to come. We can see a "Sacred Canvas" emerge in our world when embracing this mentality, understanding how we are both creature in and curator of our common home.
Spiritual Exercise: What is your level of consumption? How do you conserve? Do you have a curator's heart, willing to protect the Creator's Canvas? Pray with these questions and, together, let us protect this masterpiece we call our common home. Let us reverence the artistry of God.
Corporal Work of Mercy:
To build a better world through choices that avoid violence, exploitation, and selfishness.
Reflect on the collage of images below. At the center is a person deep in thought. Around him is the world in which he lives and the world that his choices impact. He is placed at the center because his choices will ultimately impact him as well.
How does humanity's choices impact the different parts of creation depicted in each image?
What are the implications for humanity when those choices are made?
What are the choices you face on a daily basis that either support or challenge our call to Care for Creation?
The heart of Pope Francis' Corporal Work of Mercy for Creation is choices: Choices that you and I make and their moral implications. The heart of selfishness toward creation is when we adopt the ethic of, The only choice that matters is what I want to use creation for to better myself. Though there may be an initial short-term gain for an individual or country, a selfish disposition of heart can lead to a profoundly negative impact upon others, creates violence between nations over access to natural resources, and reduces people to things that we simply use, exploiting their lands for one's own benefit.
Spiritual Exercise: Reflect on the above image and ask, How can I practice the Corporal Work of Mercy that calls us to Care for Creation through our daily choices? Pray with this question, practice mercy toward creation, which is mercy toward your neighbor, and, in the spirit of Advent, invite Christ to come into our broken world, renewing our hearts and our lands so we can deepen our spiritual lives by having access to the natural resources necessary to care for all people's material needs.
Spiritual Work of Mercy:
The Contemplation of God through the Contemplation of God's Creation.
To begin, take a few minutes and simply gaze at Michaela's first photograph titled, Contemplation.
How does it speak to you?
Next, look at the second image that provides you with questions for reflection.
Pope Francis has added two new Works of Mercy pertaining to Care for Creation. The Spiritual Work of Mercy can be summarized as: The Contemplation of God through the Contemplation of God's Creation. How do the images above speak to you about the need to care for creation? Do you find your view of creation to be more functional or sacramental, seeing a sacred character to creation or simply a collection raw materials to be used as we desire? What are the moral and ethical responsibilities that awaken in us as was gaze upon God's creation?
Spiritual Exercise: Take some time today, get outside (weather permitting), and practice The Contemplation of God through the Contemplation of God's Creation. What questions emerge in your heart as you gaze either at beauty or tragedy? If you would be comfortable, share what emerges in your practice of this Spiritual Work of Mercy in the comment section of this post. May all of us be stirred to love God and neighbor through the contemplation of God's creation, helping us understand how creation contributes to supporting human dignity for current and future generations.
This past weekend, the readings the Catholic Church used for Mass had a clear apocalyptic overtone. For those of you who are not familiar with apocalyptic literature, it is a series of texts that oftentimes speak of the end of the world. At the same time, we cannot reduce these passages to mere doom and gloom. True apocalyptic literature always points to something from the past, something that is going on in the present, and something that is pointing to the future.
Many who interpret the Book of Revelation fixate on future events, trying to guess when the end of the world will come. Christ, himself, in this weekend's Gospel, dissuades this approach. Rather, we need to stop and first ask, "How would the people of Jesus' time have experienced these texts?" The problem is, living over 2,000 years after these texts were penned, we don't have the common experience of Jesus' time to see the clear connections to what was being addressed in the first century. This is why trying to understand the cultural context of this literature is so key.
There is much, much more that could be said of apocalyptic literature, but one thing that is universal, regardless what interpretive lens you adapt, apocalyptic literature does tend to have the effect of scaring the "H-E-Double Hockey Sticks" out of us. (For those unfamiliar with this "americanism," it's a way of speaking of where we hope none of us end up after dearth for all eternity without.... you know.... using a certain word.)
In those days, I Daniel,
heard this word of the Lord:
"At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book.
"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.
"But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever. Daniel 12:1-3
Jesus said to his disciples:
"In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
"And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds'
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
"But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:24-32)
When we read these passages, it is typical for us to fixate on the darkness of life: Wars, murder, the death of innocence, and cultural polarities. There is merit to gaze into this darkness, but not simply to make sure we occasionally ruin our day. Rather, we gaze into apocalyptic imagery and the sadness of our world to find light and hope.
Years ago, NASA and ESA scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope into what appeared to be a dark, empty part of the night sky. Some even questioned if this exercise was a waste of time, fearing that nothing would be seen other than more dark skies. What was captured was one of the most stunning images ever seen by Hubble. Thousands of unseen galaxies popped out of the darkness like Christmas tree lights. Applying this to our spiritual lives, it's an odd paradox that, sometimes, to allow the light of faith into our hearts, we must first peer deeply into the darkness of our lives, even when it seems there is no light to be found.
This past Wednesday, I shared with my parishioners at Saint Olaf Parish's bible study how St. Bede, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, saw these apocalyptic images not as a dark night getting darker with the Sun and Moon losing their light. Rather, he flipped the common interpretation and said that the reason the firmament losses its luminosity was because when the light of Christ enters our world, no other light is perceptible.
For the stars in the day of judgment shall appear obscure, not by any lessening of their own light, but because of the brightness of the true light, that is, of the most high Judge (Jesus Christ) coming upon them; although there is nothing to prevent its being taken to mean, that the sun and moon with all the other heavenly bodies then for a time are really to lose their light, just as we are told was the case with the sun at the time of our Lord’s Passion. But after the day of judgment, when there shall be a new sky and a new earth, then shall happen what Isaiah says: “Moreover, the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold.” (Cantena Aurea - St. Thomas quoting St. Bede - Chapter 13 of Mark)
As the season of Advent approaches, I shared with them that the image of Sun, Moon, and Stars not shining due to the joy of Christ breaking into our broken world is a perfect backdrop for the season of waiting. Also, in the spirit of seeing these images as poetic metaphor, we are to allow the light of Christ to shine through our thoughts, words, and actions, becoming, in the imagery of the prophet Daniel, like the stars of the firmament. As I have shared with you before, we encounter in these texts the true meaning of stars and celestial objects in the Bible: Symbolic of angels and people, of you, of me, and our common call to allow Christ's light to shine through us, waiting in joyful anticipation for the one true light that will chase away all of our darkness.
Spiritual Exercise: What are the "darkened skies" you see in the world today? What are the areas of personal darkness you struggle with and desire the love of God to heal? As we prepare for the beginning of Advent in two weeks, beg the Lord to break into our world with his light of hope. Let us joyfully anticipate the coming of Christ into our hearts to dispel the darkness of sin and illuminate us with the light of forgiveness. And may we allow the light of Christ to shine through us, avoiding the tendency to see apocalyptic literature through the lenses of gloom, darkness, and fear, choosing, instead, the true interpretive lenses of faith, hope, and love.
What is your opinion of global warming? Though this question usually leads to a plethora of dueling political, theological, scientific, and personal ideologies about climate change, most people do believe we should be good stewards of creation. The point of division is what care for creation should look like and how should it be done? The more I write, pray, and reflect on the question of care for creation, I think that one of the struggles of getting on the same page with the environment is the use of a language of extremes to accentuate subtlety of change.
For example, smoking is not allowed in any public building in the state of Wisconsin. When this policy was enacted, there was much debate about the relationship between personal freedom and public health. Years later, while on vacation, I was surprised to learn that smoking is not banned in public buildings in the state of Oregon. When a good friend of mine joined me for a few days in Portland, we observed how each of our hotel rooms clearly carried the remnants of past patrons who smoked, giving us a deep appreciation for Wisconsin's smoking ban. However, we also observed that this "small change" of Wisconsin's smoking ban was far more impactful than we realized. It wasn't until we reentered a "contaminated environment" that we could appreciate a clean environment.
Part of me wonders if this experience of Wisconsin and Oregon is part of the reason why developing ethos to support care for creation is so difficult. When what is experienced by many are "subtle changes" to climate, the full impact of what is happening in creation can often go unnoticed. When attempts to create ethos gravitates toward language of "radical change," I wonder if there is something almost intuitive that questions this language since it seems to be so out of step with daily experience (at least in the state of Wisconsin where fellow blogger Christopher Graney rightly points out the local numbers can be interpreted in a way that questions whether or not global warming is happening in the Badger State).
Could it be that much of the apathy found when trying to promote care for creation is lack of attention to the subtleties of the environment, in contrast to the more culturally fashionable language of radical, diametrically opposed realities dueling with each other? Put another way, can we develop ethos to care for creation by emphasizing the small changes that end up having a major impact on the future of our common home and humanity?
In the weeks to come, I will be exploring these questions in a creative way. Since moving back to Eau Claire, I have had the joy of reconnecting with some of my former students I was teacher and/or chaplain for at Regis Middle and High School. Michaela Pittenger, a middle school student when I left Regis, is now working on a degree in photography (gosh, I'm feeling older than I should). Michaela has a love for artistic photography, is one of my parishioners at Saint Olaf Parish, and has a deep passion for ecology and sustainability.
I asked Michaela if she would be open to explore a project with me by taking some of the key principles I have explored in my writing on care for creation and have her bring her artistry as a photographer to those principles to create visual stories based on those principles. She eagerly agreed to this project and tomorrow we will be meeting to see the first stories Michaela has put together based on my writing. I can't wait to see her work!
Basic examples of some of Michaela's Photography
I will be sharing these visual stories of care for creation with you in an attempt to help develop ethos for care for creation not only through words calling for significant change in our daily lives, but images that can draw our mind and heart into the particulars and "smallness" of care for creation. What excites both Micheala and I is that this project wont just be meant to create beautiful pictures, which I'm sure they will be, but to help us be attentive to creation through visual storytelling. Both of us are excited to share these stories with you.
Images inspire inquiry, inquiry builds knowledge, knowledge leads to truth, and truth leads to appreciation and action. This is the trajectory I pray can be developed in these visual stories. Will they accomplish this lofty goal? Time will tell. Nevertheless, my hope it that the efforts Michaela and I put forward in this project will inspire the readers of The Catholic Astronomer to not only embrace care for creation on a personal level, but will inspire you to actively promote this ethic of Catholic Social Teaching in the world you live.
Spiritual Exercise: Is there a story in creation you would like Michaela and I to explore? Leave your suggestions and, together, let us strive to enact positive changes in creation, inspired by attentiveness to the subtle beauty of creation's story.
As a Catholic Priest, there is much in our world that can trouble the soul. Whether it be very public troubles like church scandals or more personal troubles like a parishioner dying of cancer, the twofold ability to both enter into these troubles with Christ's love, but also remove my heart from them has been essential. To state this more plainly, detachment of heart, upholding the dignity of others, and finding an ability to laugh if things start to get a little too heavy!
Unfortunately, there are times when laughter is not only impossible, but would be inappropriate. This past week in the United States, we have dealt with such times whether it be the mailing of bombs to current and past elected officials or the antisemitic assassination of eleven of God's children at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. There is much that can be and should be said to address these tragedies. Unfortunately, in the spirit of the story of Bartimaeus from this last weekends Gospel, though the eyes of many may have physical clarity, the eyes of faith that is to constantly see human dignity in all people made in God's image and likeness is giving way to overtures for power.
I could spill a great deal of ink (or pixels) on these situations, but for the sake of The Catholic Astronomer, I wanted to cast this in light of the power of stability and civility. Whether it be the parishioner in the pew, the friend who calls, or the city leaders I meet, the anger and outrage that come with acts of violence, co-mingled with power structures that minimize the true commentary on these tragedies for the sake of personal gain, regardless of one's political persuasion, creates a blinding emotionalism that prevents our spiritual eyes from seeing clearly how God is present in these tragedies.
Amid this blindness, there needs to be an apolitical starting point in which we stand together as expressions of God's love first, respecting the dignity we are to have for one another, and then, with clarity of mind and sobriety of heart, approach these tragedies from a standpoint of the common good versus maximizing the personal gain for an individual or social ideology.
This cultural emotionalism is not limited to these acts of terrorism and hate, but have become a calling card for much of what I see in the combative tone of the "faith versus science" drama. Amid a manufactured culture of supposed intellectual dualism, the supposed war between faith and science has done much harm to the spiritual stability and civility of those who have fallen into this rabbit hole. What ultimately takes hold isn't a core sense of sound principles to be explored in a mutually respectful investigation into the truth, but a fundamental distrust between people of faith and science, creating an unstable and uncivil starting point for a dysfunctional relationship.
When I think of dysfunctional relationships in my ministry, I initially gravitate toward marriages that are struggling. Regardless of what the struggle may be, the ministerial approach I often take is to find something, anything the couple can trust each other about. When I find that morsel of hope, I then try to find other areas that pertain to the difficulties that are at the heart of the problems of their marriage. All of this is done within the bonds of charity toward one another, charity that isn't always soft, but respectful, transparent, and truly desiring what is best for the other and their marriage.
Whether it be the broken cultures of a country, a couple that has fallen out of love, or the clashes between faith and science, I often times wonder if the first move we need to make is to seek that morsel of hope, finding the one or two things, as simple as they may be, in which we can find trust? Whatever that morsel may be and regardless of how simple it may appear, my prayer today is that trust and dignity can be restored so we can see a return to stability and civility in our world. Let us distance our hearts from the toxic emotionalism that feeds the desire to disregard human dignity. Let us sober our minds and hearts to the fact that every person, regardless of race, gender, country of origin, or state of life is deserving of love, dignity, and respect. And may we embrace this dignity in how we treat one another, personally and communally, on a daily basis.
Spiritual Exercise: What is the morsel of trust that you and I can find together? How can you and I form trust with one another? How can you and I respect each other's dignity? How can you and I voice our outrage for the tragedies of our time in a way that doesn't perpetuate a culture of darkness and distrust, but a culture of faith, hope, and love? Pray with that this week. Pray for our world. Pray for nothing but peace.
Never underestimate the power of perspective!
One of the highlights of my week at St. Olaf Parish is our Wednesday Bible study. While our youth attend faith formation, I offer a Bible study to their parents on the readings for the Sunday ahead. The purpose of this study is twofold. Primarily, I want to give my parishioners the opportunity to reflect on God's word in preparation for the Eucharist. The secondary reason is to get feedback for my homily, ensuring that I speak to the concerns of my flock.
Last Wednesday, we read Mark's telling of James and John asking Jesus for seats of power. The language of, "Lord, let us sit, one on your left and the other on your right," rings with the tone of ancient kings. It indicates that Jesus' disciples didn't quite grasp the full meaning of what in meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. When Jesus responds with the question, "Are you willing to drink the cup I am willing to drink," Jesus is using a turn of phrase from the ancient world that basically implies, "Are you willing to do God's will?" Jesus' affirmation that they will drink of the same cup as he foreshadows both that James and John will do God's will, but will also share in the same suffering Christ will endure.
The interesting twist of this Gospel is that Jesus does imply that there will be people who will sit at his left and right. Who will those people be? One of my parishioners, drawing upon the crucifixion narrative of John, said, "It would be John and Mary." I affirmed that this is a good guess, but we needed to remember that Mary and John are not present at the cross (at least not mentioned) in Mark's account of the crucifixion.
Mark is stating that the ones to sit at his left and right are the two thieves. In the Gospel of Luke, one of those thieves received a great gift after he begged the Lord, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom," with Jesus responding, "This day you will be with me in paradise." The true power of the Gospel from this past Sunday is that it is not those who seek worldly power that take the positions of honor next to Jesus, but, rather, it is the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, and those, to quote Pope Francis, who represent the margins of society.
The power of perspective. Two different Gospels. Two different insights into who it may be that sits at Jesus' left and right.
One of the connections between faith and science I've reflected on with you in the past is how the different Gospels can be seen as "filters" to view Jesus' life from a certain perspective. Each Gospel, through its distinct authorship and specific audience, gives us insight into how the followers of Jesus understood his life, death, and resurrection. I find it analogous to how scientists use different types of filters to focus on certain sets of data, revealing a piece of what is true about what is being observed, but also affirming that the filter doesn't tell the whole story.
In a fun, lighthearted way, I was reminded of the power of perspective through filters by subjecting one of my latest paintings to a series of color filters. These filters are not scientific in their design, but artistic. Still, I found it interesting how each filter highlighted different aspects of my painting. None of them were the original, but the power of perspective each filter gave allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for the work. In an odd way, I appreciated my canvas more after altering its image with filters, even though it wasn't quite the same as the original painting.
Since some have shared with me that my paintings remind them of the cloud bands on Jupiter, I decided to take some recent Juno images and wash them through the same filters. Is there scientific data to be found in these filters? Probably not. As with my paintings, these filters are meant for more artistic purposes and even if there was scientific knowledge to be gained, my eyes are not trained to see what that knowledge might be. Nevertheless, these filters do speak to me of how beautiful and wondrous Jupiter can be... from a very, very safe distance!
One of the phrases that is used to describe filtered images is to call them "false images." Yes, the filtered image can look quite different from the original. Yet, when it comes to the science of using filters for the purpose of gathering data, it isn't the the data is "false," but the false image brings forward different essential data that isn't self-evident in the original image. It is the odd irony of science that sometimes you need to have a "false image" to gain true knowledge of what you are studying. The best example of this was a false image from the Pluto flyby that had a rather psychedelic appearance. Everyone knew that this wasn't what Pluto looked like. However, it was an essential image for scientists to understand different surface feature on this fascinating dwarf planet.
In a similar way, someone can point out inconsistencies between the four Gospels, like Mary and John being at the foot of the cross in the Gospel of John, but not being present in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some may even want to disregard Scripture due to these "glaring" inaccuracies. However, to approach Scripture in such a way would reduce the Bible to something like a newspaper, only interested in the who, what, when, were, and hows of a story with slight commentary on these facts. (I'm very tempted to explore numerous times when news stories of me didn't get the who, what, when, were, and hows right, making an interpretation of the facts skewed, but we'll save that for another post.)
Christians committed to Scripture know that this is not how one reads the Bible. Since the earliest days of interpreting the Bible, there was a clear understanding that there are multiple genre's of literature in the Bible, requiring different interpretive approaches or "filters" to pull out the true meaning of the Bible. When we draw all this information or "data" together from these varied filters, we get a truer vision of who Jesus is and what it means to be Christian. To only dwell on one book of the Bible or one interpretive lens of Scripture makes it monochrome, rejecting the beautiful richness of God's inspired Word. The Bible is a spiritual kaleidoscope of vibrant contrast, radiant like the most colorful canvases imaginable.
Spiritual Exercise: What are the interpretive lenses or "filters" you use to approach life? Through what filter do you view faith? Through what filter do you view science? Are they filters that set one at odds against the other? Do you use them in a way to help you understand two different approaches to the world we live that can give you a more accurate view of the world? Pray with these questions today, and may all of us, regardless of the "filters" we use to approach life, be inspired by the truth that emerges from the varied ways we approach our world. May we have the courage to explore new perspectives so we can experience the true vibrancy of both the world we live and the God who brought this world into existence.
An interesting topic to discuss with priests is their feelings about marriage preparation. Some priests feel that marriage preparation should take the shape of priestly formation, requiring multiple years of preparation for the Sacrament. Others, such as myself, take the approach that engaged couples that seek the Sacrament are doing the best they can in the situation they are in. Therefore, in the spirit of Pope Francis, the best approach is to accompany them, acknowledge that the situation a couple is in may not be ideal, but invite them to slowly move toward the ideal with God's grace and the support of a community of faith.
Both approaches have merit. It would be wonderful if a married couple would approach the Sacrament with multiple years of formation. I even know some brother priests who have adapted this mentality in their ministry. The couples they have for marriage are very well formed theologically and embrace their faith deeply. The only problem is that these same priests are also the ones who are known for only celebrating one or two weddings a year, if that. This begs the question: If a more rigorous marriage preparation leads to hardly anyone seeking the Sacrament, is the approach really doing what it desires to accomplish?
I have been blessed with anywhere from 10-15 weddings a year. My approach is more, People have a right to marriage and if they approach me to request the Sacrament I error on the side of grace. One reason I embrace this mentality is that it is important for us, as priests, to remember that a couple has a right to marriage, but we, as priests, don't have a right to ordination. Yes, there are impediments to marriage that would make it impossible for the Sacrament to be given. However, these issues are rare and the human person was made for marriage, inspiring me to take more of an accompaniment mentality toward marriage preparation. The downside of this approach is that I can be legitimately criticized for being too soft on couples at times, having to look hard at how many of the couples I walk with toward marriage actually practice their faith after the big day. Amid the many inflammatory attitudes about marriage in our modern culture, I think it safe to say that the questions about marriage are far more numerous than the answers. Put another way, life is messy - therefore, why wouldn't marriage be messy?
Whether you are a priest that thinks that marriage should take on a formation model like seminary or that we should accompany our couples into a fuller understanding marriage, both mentalities would agree that without receptivity to what the Sacrament is, marriage preparation is difficult, if not impossible! This past weekend, I celebrating my first wedding at my new assignment of Saint Olaf Parish. Robert and Leah are a wonderful couple to work with, both receptive to the love they have for one another, the love of God in their lives, and the openness to continue their journey after their wedding day to embrace a loving and fruitful marriage. In short, I wish every marriage I had was as wonderful, beautiful, and open to God's grace as Leah and Robert's - Not only from the standpoint of the celebration it was, but the people they are becoming.
Now, some of you may be asking, "This is all well and good, but what does this have to do with faith and science?" Just as a couple needs a heart of receptivity to accept the grace God desires to give them, so, too, does a dialogue on faith and science need receptivity. Anytime two people enter into an argument, there is often a hardened heart that cares little about receptivity and more about establishing that "I am right and they are wrong." I have seen situations where the heart becomes so hard that the two having an argument will actually flip positions unconsciously, simply because they can't admit that the other person might have a point. It goes without saying, I have seen similar behavior in so-called debates between faith and science - on both sides of the issue.
This aspect of receptivity I am finding more and more a central theme of my ministry as I grow into my priesthood. You can have the best educational resources, the best teachers, the best practices for communicating the faith, but if there isn't a heart of receptivity, the best of everything can be discarded in a moment under the mantra of, "I don't care."
This leads to something that I am finding more and more when approaching the supposed tension between faith and science: The real problem isn't so much intellectual, but relational. It often surprises me when I have people I know and respect say things like, "Fr. James, why would you have friends that aren't Catholic or even Christian?" The short answer is that Jesus was just fine hanging out with just about anyone so why shouldn't I do the same? The more complicated answer is actually a question: Do we allow a cultural bigotry drive a wedge not only between faith and science, but between many factions of the human family?
In the United States, I fear that bigotry has become a social structure. Yes, we need to have honest and forthright discussion on core social issues that, at times, can lead to disagreement and tension. However, the culture of demonization and hate that has developed in the United States is eroding our ability to objectively embrace the old axiom - Love the sinner, hate the sin. Our culture, it seems, is embracing a new axiom - Love everyone until they disagree with you, then do everything you can to destroy their reputation and paint them as a horrible human being.
Therefore, I would put forward that the biggest obstacle to a sincere dialogue on faith and science boils down to reestablishing trust between people of different faiths, disciplines of science, and do so in a way that is rooted in mutual receptivity. Receptivity implies respect, humility, patience, and attentiveness to the thoughts and concerns of another, similar to the hearts of the couple whose marriage I witnessed this past weekend. What we often find now are examples of distrust, bunker-ism (meaning that we only spend time with those who are likeminded and attack anyone who disagrees with us), dismissing other's thoughts and opinions before they are even known, and objectifying others as being nothing more than a collective mentality (those people that believe strange things we should ignore) versus loving expressions of God's creative act that enrich the tapestry of creation and are deserving of love and dignity.
Spiritual Exercise: Take some time and analyze where bigotry might exist in your heart. It isn't the most comfortable of exercises, but if we truly want to bring peace between people of faith and science and the broader culture in which we live, we need to recapture the heart of receptivity that doesn't fear the other for being different, but embraces them as a brother or sister in Christ. Pray with that today, ask God to root out all bigotry in our lives, and may we discover a peaceable, open heart to the Lord and one another, receptive to God's mercy and grace.
Father, how can something so beautiful be so devastating? This question was posed to me by one of my parishioners after Mass. The beauty she spoke of was a stunning NASA image of hurricane Florence. I must admit, I agree with my parishioner that it seems paradoxical that something so beautiful and mesmerizing can also be the source of great devastation and death.
Though this paradox is self-evident, it is also important not to overly moralize this tension. For example, hurricanes are necessary to help relocate tropical air. In some ways, hurricanes are like environmental regulators, helping our common home keep balance. Therefore, if we are seeing stronger and stronger hurricanes, it also means something is out of balance. Perhaps our focus should be less about the power of these storms and explore the question, "Why are these storms getting so strong?"
Serenity and Storm, something we not only experience when gazing upon and/or experiencing hurricanes, but is something we can see throughout our universe. There are few night sky objects I find more beautiful than time laps photos of the Orion Nebula. As Winter approaches, the Northern Hemisphere will be blessed with pristine views of this nebula, ornamenting the sheath of Orion's sword. Whether it be the stunning pinks of self-illuminating gas or the fact that this nebula is a place of star birth, serenity is a fitting word to describe this nebula.
When considering the sobering history of this nebula, created by an exploding star, Storm is one of the more docile terms we can use to describe the Orion Nebula. Yet, these violent star deaths are necessary to create the heavier elements needed for life to exist.Therefore, similar to hurricanes, our tendency to moralize natural phenomena needs to be kept in check since, sometimes, the commingling of beauty and tragedy are necessary for life to evolve. Serenity and Storm, two attributes of a hurricane here on Earth and a star nursery in space.
Recently, I've been rediscovering my love of art. A good friend of mine, Jeni Geisert, sent me some YouTube videos on an art technique called "Dirty Pour." It would take far to long to explain, but the goal of the style is to create bubble like cells on a canvas. As is the case in art, I took from the videos what I liked, discarded what I didn't, and had some fun this past weekend making contemporary art.
As I was working on this canvas, I was sharing the progress on social media. Though I admit that I have a bit of a "love/hate" relationship with social media, I find that parishioners and friends greatly appreciate it when I share things with them that are outside of my ministry such as art, sports, music, and astronomy. It helps humanize priests in a healthy way.
As I was giving daily updates on my painting, Michelle Thaller responded that the flow of paint on the canvas reminded her of Juno images of Jupiter. I wholeheartedly agree with Michelle that there is a deep artistry one can see when looking at Jupiter. The Juno mission has given us a new and deeper appreciation both for the science of the Jovial Giant, and its beauty of clouds, storms, and aurora.
Serenity and Storm are good words to apply to Jupiter. Whether it be the radiation it gives off, the violent storms that are responsible for the iconic "Red Spot," or the gravitational impact on its nearest moon Io, ripping it apart and dooming it to an existence of continually turning itself inside-out through sulfur volcanos, Storm is a fitting term. Still, when one looks at the cloud bands that line up with a natural artistry that is similar to the best of non-representational art and when we learn that the same gravitational forces that torture Io also help "sweep" things like comets away from the inner planets (sometimes), and helps stabilize our orbit, we can see that Serenity and possibly Guardian are good terms to use to describe Jupiter.
After Michelle's observation about my canvas, my thoughts switched from playing with a new art form to prayer. As I poured, pulled, tilted, and stretched the paint on the canvas, I was reminded of the Serenity and Storm of my life and my priesthood. I was reminded of the parents of a two-year-old child who died in his sleep, wanting me to be with them as this child that brought them such serenity and hope was now entangled in the deep storm of his parents' worst nightmares. I was reminded of the serenity that has come from my 15 years of priesthood through the celebration of the Sacraments, connecting with good people of faith, and experiencing unforeseen blessings like writing for The Catholic Astronomer. I also think of difficult times, like funerals for cancer victims, people who chose to take their own lives, and the personal struggles that can come from ministry, pointing to ministerial storms. Needless to say, this painting has become a very fruitful time of prayer and reflection on life, faith, the natural world, and that which binds it all together: Beauty.
Spiritual Exercise: What is the Serenity and Storm of your life? Do you cast them in dualistic, moralized terms or do you see in both serenity and storm something essential to our world and the human experience? Pray with this today so that we may embrace our lives regardless of the joys and difficulties we experience. May all of us see God's presence in both the Serenity and Storm of the day ahead!
I'm happy to share with the readers of The Catholic Astronomer that I will be presiding at Evening Vespers for Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology on November 15th to kick off a new initiative in faith and science. Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, the school that educates the seminarians from my home Diocese of La Crosse who attend Saint Francis Seminary, has been awarded a major grant from The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to make education in science a part of the formation program for future priests.
The President and Rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology, Father Thomas Knoebel, stated that the purpose of this grant will be to help people come closer to God through understanding God's creation.
“This grant affirms Sacred Heart’s position in the Catholic Church as a leading seminary whose graduates serve in dioceses and religious orders throughout the United States, and is thus well-positioned to achieve its project goals.”
“Our primary job is to equip our graduates to help bring people of faith into closer relationships with God. This must take place in a context that accounts for the rich human understanding of His complex world.” (These quotes were taken from the news release from Sacred Heart School of Theology, announcing this grant on July 25, 2018.)
Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, affirmed the importance of bringing science into seminaries since parishioners, regardless of denomination, often seek out their Priest or Pastor for answers on questions of faith and science. "Many people look to their religious leaders for guidance on issues relating to science and technology, even though clergy members may get little exposure to science in their training." (Sacred Heart School of Theology Press Release, July 25, 2018.)
Jennifer's observation speaks true to my experience as a Catholic Priest. The lay faithful often seek their priest out with questions about creation, the age of the universe, evolution, the Big Bang, and a whole host of other questions. The presumption of the parishioner is that we, as priests, are experts on these topics since we have had advanced theological training. As I have reflected with you in the past, though my theological education was quite good, opportunities to understand this theology in light of modern science was rare. In light of this, I not only agree with Dr. Wiseman's statement of how people seek out their faith leaders for clarity on these subjects, but I see these programs as essential to ensure clergy can give the right answers, avoiding the embarrassment of harming people's faith with poorly formed responses to questions of faith and science.
As I have been in dialogue with Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology for this event, I have settled on a presentation theme of, "Attentiveness to Creation, Attentiveness to Christ." The heart of this presentation will reflect on how understanding creation can help us understand God, but also understanding God can given us insight into how we should approach creation. The presentation will touch on cosmology, ecology, sacramental theology, doctrine of God, and Christology.
If I were to present to you or an organization that would benefit from a presentation on faith and science, what would you want me to reflect on? Leave your thoughts and please keep me in your prayers as I prepare to be part of this joyful occasion for Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, and the AAAS.
Here's a video on awe and wonder from the AAAS
A promotional video for Saint Francis Seminary