Well, the red planet is back in the News again! And when looking at some of the initial video and images of the mission, there is much to get excited about!
Mars Missions have always had a special place in my love of science. As I've mentioned in the past, the Pathfinder mission was my "Apollo" moment, following the mission closely in my final year of college and first year of graduate school.
While acquainting myself with the Perseverance rover, my interest in our distant neighbor has been reignited. Whether it be the open source images provided by NASA (thank you!!!) or the fun binary code Easter egg in Perseverance's parachute exclaiming "dare mighty things," my attention has been turned to the rusty red dot in night sky!
When I combine Perseverance with my love of photography, I find a rare opportunity to possibly do some real science with this Mars mission. Since NASA has open sourced Perseverance's images, anyone can download them to do their own citizen science or just enjoy the Martian slide show. (Click here to see Perseverance's images) Since these images are taken in what is called a "RAW" format (meaning they contain the maximum data the camera sensor can capture), anyone with editing software can create their own edits of the Martian landscape!
When I downloaded some of the images, it was obvious they were "full spectrum" images. What that means is that the images taken contain not only the visible spectrum of light, but also Ultraviolet and Infrared wavelengths. This makes sense since full spectrum photography offers a great range of scientific applications. For example, law enforcement will use full spectrum photography at crime scenes to find evidence this is imperceptible to the visible light spectrum, but visible to full spectrum. Here's a video from Fujifilm that explains their full spectrum camera designed for law enforcement.
So, has "yours truly" tried any science with the images yet? Nope, but I intend to do some investigation in the future. First, I need to do a little more study of how to use full spectrum photography to research landscapes. For now, I decided to simply take these images and do something I greatly enjoy: Use full spectrum images to create visible light panoramas.
Any full spectrum image can be edited to display the visible light spectrum. The process isn't perfect and often presents some abnormalities because of the full spectrum image capture. Still, it's a lot of fun once you learn the process! Below is a series of images of the Martian landscape Perseverance captured as it was making its approach for landing. I identified a series of images that could be "stitched" together into a panorama. Here are the unedited images and the initial panorama I created.
I then edited the above as I would edit my full spectrum landscape images I take on Earth. Here's my first attempt at a Mars image edit.
I must admit, I am rather proud of the edit! The files are easy to work with and clean up nicely. The next step is to explore the science you can do with full spectrum photography landscapes and start looking for things on Mars. This should be a lot of fun!
Question: What fascinates you about Mars? What do you hope to learn from our distant neighbor? Leave your comments below. Who knows, maybe your comment might inspire me to go looking for something through Perseverance's images!
Happy Monday! Here's the video of Perseverances descent.
Postscript: Had a little time this afternoon to creation another Mars Panorama from Perseverance images. This is from earlier in the descent. Again, thank you NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU for open sourcing these images!
These past couple of weeks have greeted us with exciting news from Mars! First, the United Arab Emirates mission to place a weather satellite named Al-Amal into orbit around the red planet was a success! One of the main goals of the "hope probe" is to understand the red planet's atmosphere. This work will be essential to help solve the mystery of why Mars has lost so much of its original atmosphere. For those interested in following the UAE's mission, I invite you to visit their website: https://www.emiratesmarsmission.ae/ar.
Another bit of exciting news is that NASA's latest Mars rover and "helicopter" have also arrived at Mars! The Perseverance Rover has an ambitious mission of drilling samples on the red planet to be sent back to Earth by a future mission being planned by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). If successful, the future launch of Perseverance's samples back to Earth will be the first time humans have launched a space traveling vessel from another planet.
The second part of NASA's Mars mission is to accomplish another first. A small helicopter is attached to the underbelly of Perseverance named Ingenuity. Though Ingenuity's mission goals are far more modest than Perseverance's mission, a successful flight would mark the first time an autonomies helicopter flew on another planet. The helicopter will help scientists explore regions of Mars inaccessible for rovers.
As odd as it sounds, amid the amazing science that will be done with Al-Amal and Perseverance, I'm most excited about Ingenuity's mission. Why, might you ask? Ingenuity reminds me of radio controlled planes and helicopters I always wanted to play with as a child. And with its first mission to be a "simple" ascend and descend, who wouldn't want to grab the joystick and fly a small helicopter on Mars? Of course, even though Ingenuity looks like a child's toy, it's far more complicated both in design and mission that it looks. For more information on the NASA Mars missions, click the link: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.
While watching both of these mission teams celebrate their first accomplishments, I can't help but feel joy. The world often sees space travel as normal, forgetting the difficulties, planning, and thin margin for error that goes into these missions. Watching the joy of these scientists reminds me that every space mission is a "first" and should be celebrated as a major achievement.
I will offer deeper reflections in weeks to come. For today, I simply wanted to thank both NASA and UAE for sharing the joy of their success with us. In a year of pandemic that has seen much pain, sadness, and death, both of your teams (along with the other Mars Missions arriving soon from other countries) have given us a moment of joy and relief! My prayers for the success of both of your missions. Let's learn more about our distant neighbor!
If you live in the United States, you might be a bit on the chilly side this week. Last Sunday morning, I looked at a reputable weather forecast website to figure out what I needed to wear outside. The forecasted low for the day was -9 degrees Fahrenheit (-22 Celsius). What was the actual temperature at the airport down the street from my rectory? A balmy -18 degrees Fahrenheit (-27 Celsius). That was the raw temperature... let's not talk about the wind chill levels.
Days like last Sunday (and today) often bring about an ongoing debate with some parishioners: Fr. James, I read what you write about climate change and I'm confused - If global warming is real, why is it so cold right now? My gut tells me I wont get this question as much this year since we have had a very mild winter. Still, as Chris Graney and I explored in past posts, temperatures in my home state have been decreasing over the years. In light of this, I can appreciate why people would question global warming, at least where I live: Shouldn't global warming make me feel warmer? If you would like to read the posts Chris and I did in the past, here are the links:
- Climate in Kurzynski Country,
- Kurzynski County's Response to the Graney Data,
- Sweltering Heat, Bitter Cold, Torrential Rain, Historic Floods: Why your friends, your family members, your co-workers, members of your church, your elected officials, and perhaps you yourself might be skeptical regarding Climate Change (this last link was not part of our discussion, but its a GREAT post!)
Enter into the conversation the Polar Vortex. Many of us aspiring armchair meteorologists have been hearing a lot about the Polar Vortex these days. Here's a brief video that explores the cause of our chilling temperatures.
So, the warmer the North Pole gets the colder I become... hmmm.... being from Wisconsin, that actually makes sense! All kidding aside, Wisconsinites enjoy applying Murphy's Law in a rather expansive manner in relation to our everyday lives. That being said, it does make sense that if the cold air at the poles is displaced by warm air, the cold air has to go somewhere... Why not Wisconsin! As the NOVA clip explains, we need more data to confirm this hypothesis. It's both the exciting and challenging aspect of climate science: It's a relatively new field of science, meaning there's the potential for groundbreaking discoveries, but our impatient culture gets frustrated with what they perceive as "slow" research.
For some more reading on the Polar Vortex, here's a couple more articles:
Since the clouds have been a constant guest in Wisconsin this year, I've gotten into doing wildlife photography in my spare time. Recently, a friend of mine who is a serious bird enthusiast tipped me that there was a Snowy Owl sighting about 15 minutes away from where I live. I grabbed my camera, met up with my friend, and, for the first time in my life, I saw a Snowy Owl! Snowy Owls are arctic raptors that venture south during the winter. Recently, a Snowy Owl made headlines for showing up in New York City's Central Park.
It's a bit of a mystery as to why this beautiful animal ventures south. There are theories that range from food scarcity, large breeding numbers, or younger owls that venture further south than older owls. In regard to climate, the Snowy Owl is often seen as an iconic animal in regard to the ecological health of the Arctic. There is strong sentiment that as the Arctic warms and the ecosystem changes, the future of the Snowy Owl becomes threatened. Still, there is a lot of science that needs to be done with this mysterious raptor to understand why the Snowy Owl does what it does and why their numbers are dwindling. Click the link or one of my owl images below to read a wonderful Smithsonian Magazine piece on the movements of the Snowy Owl - This article is my source material for this paragraph.
So, what does a Wisconsinite do during a cold snap during a national pandemic? We dream about the day we will be able to take a vacation!! As of late, as I wait for my second Covid-19 vaccination shot, I've been feeling some hints of hope that maybe, just maybe I could plan a trip somewhere in the distant future! Now you might think it funny that my first thought was to take a trip to Iceland since I'm complaining about the cold of Wisconsin, but Iceland ticks a lot my boxes: Stars, Northern Lights, Majestic Landscapes, and... Puffins!
Puffins? Since when have I been interested in Puffins? Again, since I've been enjoying bird photography, I thought that a future vacation should include some type of bird expedition. When I did a web search on "beautiful birds," the oddly adorable Puffin caught my eye. When I found out that Iceland is one of their main breeding grounds, the connection between Puffins and my astronomical interests got me thinking of a trip.
Knowing next to nothing about Puffins, I started to do some research on this bird. Wouldn't you know it, climate change strikes again. Whether it be warmer waters off of Canada and Maine causing the primary food source for Puffins to relocate or speculation that global warming's alteration to the "Global Ocean Conveyor Belt" is altering the life of the Icelandic Puffin, Murphy's Law struck again: I'm just a simple Wisconsinite that is looking for happy thoughts and a nice vacation and I end up feeling moved to write a piece on global climate change.
Again, just as is the case with the Polar Vortex and the Snowy Owl, there's a lot more science that needs to be done to understand why Puffins are struggling to survive. For more information on Puffins, here are a couple articles on this fascinating bird.
- Mass Puffin Die-Off May Be Linked to Climate Change
- Audubon Project Puffin: Climate Change and Chance
- Seabird Protection and Avoidance Tips
You might be asking yourself: What does this have to do with faith? Well, the Arctic Vortex, Snowy Owls, and Puffins remind me of the spiritual vision of the good, the true, and beautiful, leading to a sense of harmony with God, ourselves, and the world around us. What do I mean?
Bishop Barron (then Father Barron) would often teach his students that the goal of the mediaeval approach to spirituality was a type of harmony, balance, and right relationship. This harmony was both internal and external. Therefore, the heart of inner peace is developing a harmonious unity with God, neighbor, and the created world around us. This web of relationships brings us to the true, the good, and the beautiful, not only theologically, but also from a standpoint of our natural understand of how we are to relate to the world around us.
The true - What does our natural understanding of the world teach about how to protect God's creation?
The good - How are we to act rightly toward creation?
The beautiful - How does our knowing the truth and acting rightly contribute to the awe-inspiring fruit of a creation this is harmonious and healthy?
And this is the connection I see between the Polar Vortex, Snowy Owls, and Puffins - When I am in right relationship with God, neighbor, and the world, that harmony can allow for all of creation to be as God intended. Put another way, if I want to be able to take beautiful pictures of Snowy Owls and Puffins in the future, I need to understand my proper relationship with God's creation so these beautiful creatures can live and flourish.
Spiritual Exercise: How are you to approach the true, the good, and the beautiful in your life? How do these categories instruct you on how to live in right relationship with God, neighbor, and our world? Pray with these questions and, together, let's strive for a Spirit driven harmony in the world we live. Let us love God, one another, and the created world of wonders that is God's gift.
In the past, I offered a reflection on what it means to bring humanity to space. In that reflection, I teased the idea that space travel needs to be more than just scientific exploration. Don't get me wrong, the science of space travel is central for many obvious reasons. At the same time, if we really want to bring humanity into space it requires us to explore science, philosophy, culture, humanities, and faith. The human person is not a one dimensional species. We are a complexity of biology, psychology, and religiosity that creates both the beauty of the human experience and the tragedy of what can happen when the fragility of our human nature fails.
I was reminded of this while penning my reflection, Space Missions in 2021: What Are You Most Excited To See In This New Year? In particular, I was quite moved by the United Arab Emirates Mars probe mission, Al Amal. Enjoy this beautiful video as a refresher of the Mars mission soon to arrive at our distant neighbor.
What touched me the most about this video was how the scientists tied this mission to their culture. Islam has a deep history of scientific and philosophical advancements. A history I had a unique experience with while being Chaplain at Regis High School In Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
One day, Yoseph Ahmed, a rather bright student at Regis, dropped by my office to ask me if I would do a directed studies religion class with him. When I asked Yoseph what he would like to study, he said, "The morality and ethics of Thomas Aquinas." I was a bit stunned that any high school student would want to voluntarily read the Summa Theologica, but Yoseph's deeper explanation helped me understand why he wanted to study this Church Doctor. "Fr. James, when I read Thomas Aquinas, I feel like I am listening to the Imam at my Mosque." It then dawned on me: Thomas Aquinas built his ethics primarily on a recovery of Aristotle through the writing of the Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazali. I accepted Yoseph's request and what commenced was one of the most powerful experiences of interfaith dialogue I ever had. In gratitude for working with Yoseph (and later on his brother Mahmoud), the Ahmed family invited me into their home and shared the full extent of Muslim hospitality with me. It was a night I treasured and remember fondly to this day.
When I watched the video of the Al Amal mission, I sensed the same cultural pride that Yoseph displayed to me as we explored Thomas Aquinas. It's the desire of us all, regardless of our faith background, to make a positive contribution to our world. The contribution we make is not simply for notoriety or fame, but as an expression of who are as a people and what we feel God calls us to be. From this perspective, exploring space, by its very nature, will always be an interfaith exploration, finding within the common scientific goals of missions to the Moon or Mars a personal connection with who we are as a people.
Of course, we also need to temper this idealism with the reality of our fallen nature. Sadly, the year Yoseph and I explored Thomas Aquinas was also a year of global acts of violence of Christians toward Muslims and Muslims toward Christians. When they occurred, Yoseph and I would talk about how these tragic events made us feel, whether it was Christians as victims or Muslims as victims. We developed a deep appreciation and respect for each other, realizing that neither one of us wanted to see people of our faith traditions killed for religious reasons and the phrase "killing in the name of God" was equally irrational and incoherent to our understandings of Christianity and Islam - At least from the perspective of how they should be practiced versus how they sometimes have been practiced.
Yoseph entered the United States Navy and, as is often the case as a priest chaplain, it's been some time since we've talked. That being said, I'm proud of the Ahmed brothers and know they are making good in the world. I treasure my experience with them and know those experiences have made me a better priest.
When watching the promotion video NASA created for the Artemis missions, I feel that same sense of connecting the human experience with space exploration. When we look at Artemis' goal of going to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, we receive a clear message: Humanity is making a home in space!
I find this exciting, but also worrisome. Can this new era of multi-cultural space exploration lead to bring out the best of humanity, allowing the exploration of space to unify the human spirit or will the fallenness of our human nature turn this exploration into a new era of tension and conflict?
The honest answer: It will probably be a little bit of both.
That being said, let us take time today to ask God to heal our broken world and renew our desire to achieve a common kinship amid our diversity of beliefs. May we allow the best of what it means to be human be at the forefront of exploring new worlds. And may we avoid the trap of allowing our fallenness to turn this new era of exploration into a new manifestation of division and hatred.
It's been a long, long time since I offered a "From the backyard" reflection. Part of the reason for this delay is the occupational hazard of all astro-buffs: Clouds! I can't speak for other parts of the United States, but the cloud cover over Wisconsin has been epic. Clouds at this time of year are common for the badger state, but the transition from 2020 to 2021 has been a challenge for night sky lovers. Thankfully, the clouds broke the last couple nights and I finally was able to capture first light with my new duo-band filter (H-Alpha/OIII). As with all things, time will help me improve my images, but, for a first attempt, I'm pretty happy with the results!
Something I've come to quickly love about duo-band astrophotography is that you can still image deep sky images in a city that boasts a bortle class 6 sky (in other other words, we don't see too many stars over head) and a waxing gibbous Moon. As a star gazing priest, my time to spend doing astrophotography is limited. Therefore, to be able to set up my gear just outside my house and still get nice results really helps keep the drive for astronomy alive!
I've started to work on a basic video of how I approach astrophotography. It isn't going to be a "professional" approach by any means. It will simply be a, "How do I maximize the limited time I have to enjoy imaging the night sky." I'll share some links in those videos of amateur astrophotographers I have come to admire. When you see their results, you will have a hard time thinking of them as amateur, but what I love about them is they provide a glimpse into what this hobby can be for anyone with time, patience, humility, and a modest financial investment.
As I was imaging Orion, I couldn't help but reflect on our world situation. My thoughts wandered in many directions, but always came back to the theme of gratitude for the emerging vaccines for Covid-19.
One of my stress points of late has been offering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to Covid-19 patients. For those of you who are not Catholic, the Anointing of the Sick is a Sacrament given to people who have a persistent illness that is life threatening. At the point of death, a special form of the Sacrament is given called Viaticum. It is a Sacrament that prepares a person who is actively dying to make life's final journey: From death to eternal life.
Hospitals differ in their policies about non-medical personnel entering patient rooms. In Wisconsin, some of the hospitals have enough protective gear to allow clergy to visit patients at the point of death. I want to thank the staffs of Mayo Hospital and Marshfield Hospital in Eau Claire who take such good care of clergy to ensure, to the best of their ability, our safety with these visits. Seeing the worst of Covid-19 in the hospital room is an experience I pray none of you ever have. Though the optics of a Covid-19 death is far different from the physical trauma of an emergency room surgery, the emotional trauma of helplessness is something I've seldom experienced as a priest. I know I've shared this with you before, but, please, stay safe, follow the guidance of our health professionals, and let's beat Covid-19!
As a result of clergy being allowed into emergency rooms, the Health Department determined that clergy of any tradition that are routinely called into Covid-19 situations should be in the early rounds of vaccinations. Last week, I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. So far, no side effects! However, there is an interesting range of emotions I am experiencing.
The night before I was to get vaccinated, I couldn't sleep and was having this odd mix of stress, excitement, fear, and relief. Every emotion could be summarized with the thought, "Does this mean Covid-19 is starting to come to an end?" This question was greeting with an emotional "ping-pong" match of "yes" and "no." "Yes" from the standpoint that I'm a couple months away from achieving a level of immunity from this disease. "No" from the standpoint that it's going to be some time before we can achieve herd immunity, even with a large number of people being vaccinated. In light of this, I have made sure we add a petition at Mass every week for patience. We're not out of the woods yet, but I am thankful that faint glimmers of hope are starting to emerge through the trees. If you have concerns about vaccination, talk with your primary care physician and seriously open your hearts to being vaccinated. God has blessed the medical sciences with the ability to uphold one of the core themes of Catholic Social Teaching: The health, welfare, and dignity of the human person. In that spirit, I want to thank every research scientist who has and will continue to work toward developing vaccines and treatments for Covid-19!
Needless, to say, there was a lot on my mind while capturing the image above. I so appreciate that God has made my heart passionate about the night sky. It filled me with wonder as a child and now provides peace and comfort to deal with the cultural and emotional trauma we are all experiencing with Covid-19.
Question for Prayer: I've asked this before, but how are you doing with finding healthy ways to deal with this pandemic? Could the night sky offer a chance to lift eyes that have been downcast? If you have clear skies tonight, enjoy the stars, reflect on your life, and ask God to continue to help us through these most difficult times.
Now that the Christmas season is done, I can return to reflecting on astronomy! As I shared with you in the past, I plan on doing a couple more pieces on the forthcoming Artemis Missions. I also thought it would be fun to reflect on space missions slated for 2021. For understandable reasons, Covid-19 has often forced us to reflect on hard things that can lead to an emotional weightiness. Let's take a little time to focus on the positives. Literally, let's allow our minds to drift into space today!
While poking around on EarthSky, I found a piece titled, "6 space missions to look forward to in 2021." Below are the missions. I want to get your feedback on which missions interest you the most and, of those missions, which ones would you like me to write about. With that, let's dream!
Though these probes are already on the way to Mars, a host of technologies will be arriving at our distant neighbor in February. The first interplanetary mission from the United Arab Emirates named Al Amal will be arriving on February 9th, followed by an obiter and rover from the Chinese Space Administration named Tianwen-1. The third sojourner to the "red planet" will be a rover from NASA named Perseverance that will explore the Jezero Crater. Here are summaries of each mission.
Chandrayann-3 is the third in a series of Moon Missions for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). If successful, the mission will send a rover to the Moon to search for subsurface ice! Here's a summary of the mission.
James Webb Telescope
What I am most excited about in 2021 is the launch of the James Webb Telescope (fingers crossed!!). After having the privilege of visiting NASA Goddard and seeing the replica of the James Webb Telescope support structure, I've been waiting with great anticipation to see what this space telescope will deliver! Launch is set for October 31st, the day after my birthday! Oh, how I wish Covid-19 would allow me to see this launch!
Again, I want to thank Sacred Space Astronomy member and good friend Leonard Garcia for the invitation to visit NASA Goddard and his personal tour of the facilities. For those of you who may be interested, I wrote a piece a while back about my experience of visiting NASA Goddard. You can either click here or on my James Webb selfie to read about my visit!
Later this year, the first of the Artemis "prep" missions will take place as the Orion probe will be sent to the Moon and back. The probe will not have a crew, but serve as a kind of "stress test" for the Orion probe. This is scheduled for November of 2021.
So, which one of these missions interests you the most and why? Leave your comments below and, together, let's make 2021 a year of wonder, even amid the ongoing struggles of our national pandemic.
Did I choose the title for this piece to serve as nothing more than provocative clickbait? No, not in the least. As we come to the conclusion of 2020, I am thankful for this year. Now, does being thankful mean that I am happy we're living through a national pandemic? No, I am not trying to glorify nor deny the hard reality that is Covid-19. What I am trying to do is find the proverbial "silver lining" in the 2020 storm cloud. And, at least for me, I've found some rather pronounced silver linings!
Given my newfound love of photography, I reflected on this past year by revising images. While going through these images, what I discovered wasn't just a collection of "moments in time" that are now archived on pixel filled hard drives, but I found memories, good memories of 2020.
The first of those memories was my sabbatical at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, Arizona. I needed a break from ministry and, looking back, I think I needed it more than I realized at the time - I was burned out. As I look at some of the images from my time in Tucson, my heart becomes filled with the sea of emotions I was dealing with and how I am in such a better place now having been on sabbatical. When I captured and edited these images, I was focusing on the question, "How do I want these images to look?" Now, looking back, I reflect on how I've grown since taking these images. If I were to summarize my sabbatical in one word, it would be healing. And I thank God and the staff at the Redemptorist Renewal Center who facilitated that healing.
The highpoint of my sabbatical scientifically was when an object burned up in the atmosphere over my head while capturing Milky Way images at the Renewal Center outdoor chapel. One of my goals while in Tucson was to spend time at professional observatories in Arizona. Covid-19, obviously, took those opportunities away. The experience of imaging the aftermath of this atmospheric burn up, sending Br. Guy the image below, and receiving scientific data about what happened overhead from the Vatican Observatory was invigorating for me! In many ways, I treasure that experience far more than if I had visited observatories... Even though I know I would have loved that opportunity! (Click here or on the image of the vapor trail remnant to read about my experience that morning.)
I so treasure my sabbatical experience. Even though I hope to never see another 2020, my sabbatical is something I wouldn't trade for anything. So, in that spirit, thank you 2020!
Reconnecting Prayer With Creation
Another gift of 2020 was reconnecting my prayer with creation. A brother priest e-mailed me a while back to congratulate me on becoming Dean, but also expressed sadness that my new work load would probably mean less time to do photography. I post my images on social media for family, friends, and parishioners, with many telling me the images provide a diversion form the stress of Covid-19. I never thought images could be ministerial, but they are!
I explained to my friend Tom that photography is actually secondary to my primary goal, post sabbatical, of reconnecting with prayer through creation. In light of this, my images are really more of a prayer journal than they are a catalogue of images. Now when I experience stress in contrast to before my sabbatical, I have a prayerful place to decompress and pray - God's creation. Photography simply documents those moments of prayer.
Therefore, thank you 2020 for helping me rediscover and deepen my prayer through the beauty of God's creation! It's a gift that I treasure and would not give away for anything.
And, of course, there was the gift of comet Neowise. What I would give for another night with the comet! Thank you 2020 for the gift of this celestial visitor!
All of us could easily curse 2020 as the "year to forget." As we approach the new year, I would invite you to reflect on 2020 from the standpoint of looking for the graces this year offered us. Challenges help us grow in many ways, even when they are painful. 2020 has created great pain for many. Let's reclaim this year at its end for the good that came so we don't dismiss this year with phrases like "a wasted year" or "lost time," but approach it as a difficult season of our lives that can now be redemptive as we prepare for a 2021 that we hope will be the first step toward a "Post-Covid-19 World."
What are you thankful for? Post your thoughts below. Thank you 2020 and good riddance! And, Lord, may 2021 be a year of healing and joy.
Christmas offers wonderful opportunities to reflect on faith and astronomy. Therefore, I'm going to delay my next reflect on the Artemus Moon missions until after the New Year. For now, I will venture into a classic minefield that tonight's conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn actually begs us to ask. The minefield I speak of is the question, When was Jesus born?
As I shared with you last week, tonight will be the highpoint of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Sadly, the weather forecast for Wisconsin looks "so-so" for good viewing of the conjunction. Still, the event has awoken some logical questions - Was this conjunction the Star of Bethlehem? Was Jesus born on December 25th? How do we know for sure any of this is true?
These are all good questions! However, these question also present a plethora of not-so-good rabbit holes we can fall into if we are not careful. In my youth, the certainty of answering questions about the date of Jesus' birth were fighting words. The intellectual "dukes went up" and I was ready to fight to the death that Jesus was born on December 25th. Then I entered seminary and heard in class that Jesus most likely wasn't born on December 25th. What? Have I been duped? Is my faith a lie?
Looking back, I can easily diagnose my theological disease - Radical Certitude. Since I came of age as a Catholic during a time when Christian apologetics (clear, simple answers to defend Christian faith) was replacing theology, I wanted my faith to be clear, consistent, and certain. I find it ironic that it was entering seminary that took the certitude I clung to and dismantled my presumptions. In an environment that I thought would simply affirm my radical certitude, I spent the first year of seminary studying the history of philosophy. The running joke that year among my classmates was, So when will we start to talk about God?
In those moments, my faith was ironically shaken. For some of my classmates, the shaking was too much and they decided to leave seminary. However, that shaking was necessary so I could be "rebuilt" with authentic faith. Welcome to why the word seminary means "seedbed" or a place where seeds are planted and grow. And in order to grow, you must first till the soil and remove its weeds for healthy growth the occur. The first year of seminary was the tilling and weeding!
I start with this because our culture has become obsessed with radical certitude. I hear it in young Catholics considering marriage when they say to me, "Father, if I don't know 100% that this is the person I will marry, I wont marry them." My response, "Well, then I guess you'll never get married." Even though I am a young pup at 47, I'm finding more and more that radical certitude is a fast path to neurosis. A healthy life isn't found in certitude, but, rather, trying to make the best decisions we can with what is presented to us and then make a "leap of faith." The leap isn't blind or uneducated. Far from it. However, true faith is discerning - With what is presented before me, what is the best path for me to take forward?
What in the world does this have to do with the date of Jesus' birth? Hang in there, we're getting to the answer. We just need to till a little more soil!
One of the moments of rebuilding my faith in seminary was to understand the role of inculturation in the Church. Inculturation is something that all of us participate in both knowingly and unknowingly. For example, when I was in college I went through a crisis of cultural identity. Even though my hereditary background is Polish, Irish, German, and English, there wasn't much of these cultural traditions that were maintained on either side of my family. I started to feel like I was a "cultural orphan." I became good friends with a young woman who was part of a local Native American tribe in Wisconsin. Many of our conversations centered on what it meant for her to be Native American.
My friend invited me to join her at Pow Wows and explained to me the significance of the event. At the center of the Pow Wow was a drum that was constantly played. My friend explained to me that this represented the "womb of creation" and how when the drummers would play and sing, the songs signified the creation of all things. I instantly started to reflect on my own faith and how I viewed creation from both my faith background and the astronomy classes I was taking at the time. When she invited me to join her in the dance around the drum, I hesitated, feeling like I shouldn't join the dance - This isn't my tradition. She explained to me that it is considered a great insult to reject an invitation to dance, so I danced... awkwardly! In that moment, feeling the reverberations of the drum in my own body, I finally felt I had found a part of my identity, even though I am not Native American. When I would go home after these Pow Wows, I would often ask, "Why can't what I experienced be part of my Christian faith?" Welcome to how inculturation occurs.
The date of Christmas has much to do with inculturation. When you start to study theology, you encounter a strange reality - We often don't have a definitive birth date for most the key Christian thinkers from the first two centuries. Why is that? The reason is that the ancient Judeo-Christian world did not view a person's birth as significant. Instead, to the early Christian, the date of their death was more significant - Their birth into eternal life. Therefore, Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, was not observed by early Christians. Instead, the emphasis in the ancient Church was celebrating Holy Week and Easter - The time of Jesus' death and resurrection. Even Scripture fallows this trend of placing more focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus since the passion and resurrection narratives appear in all four Gospels, but the infancy narratives appear in only two Gospels.
So... When did Christians start to celebrate Christmas?
As a liturgical feast, we don't find Christmas mentioned in official liturgical texts until the ninth century and the first reference to December 25th as the date when Jesus was born doesn't appear until the third century through the writings of Sextus Julius Africanus (click here to read a piece from the online encyclopedia Britannica with more details). This raises some interesting questions. First, why did it take over 200 years for someone to figure out when Jesus was born and, second, if they did figure out the date in the third century, why did the Church wait until the ninth century to start celebrating Christmas? Welcome to the process of inculturation!
Since early Christian culture didn't celebrate Jesus' birth, non-Jewish converts explored a logical question - Our culture celebrates birth and we want to celebrate the birth of Jesus - When was he born? Is the fact that we can't find a birth date for Jesus proof that Jesus didn't exist? No, it simple affirms that birth wasn't emphasized in the culture of the Children of Israel. From this starting point, it makes sense that the date of Jesus' birth would most likely be determined in large part through the eyes of inculturation. To reference my Pow Wow experience, welcome to the heart that would ask, "Now that Jesus is the center of my life, how can I make this a part of my cultural expression?"
This gave birth to the idea of Cosmic Liturgy. Cosmic liturgy, which I have discussed in the past, is the process of seeing in creation the natural rhythms of our world as signs and symbols of faith. Sextus Julius Africanus connected spring with the creation of the world, leading him to presume that March 25th must have been the date when Jesus was conceived since Jesus came to set creation aright after the fall of humanity. Therefore, March 25th (around the time of the vernal equinox) is the feast of the Annunciation, when Gabriel visited Mary to announce that she would bear a son and name him Jesus.
Nine months later, December 25th was then the presumed date of Jesus' birth. Given the rhythm of the length of days in the Northern Hemisphere, a theology was developed to make a connection between the length of days and the impact of sin on the world. The feast of the Birth of John the Baptist, June 24th, the one who cries out "prepare the way of the Lord," is around the summer equinox. From there, the elongation of night begins, signifying the impact of sin on the world. When Jesus is born (around the winter equinox) then nights are longest, signifying how the impact of sin can hinder "the light of truth" in our world. However, the birth of Jesus also occurs when days are becoming longer, signifying the impact that Jesus is the light of the world, dispelling the darkness of sin. This brings us to spring and the whole pattern starts again.
Beautiful when you think about it, unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere. I speculate that one of the reasons that Cosmic Liturgy didn't have a long shelf life was because it was a uniquely "Western European" view of the rhythm of creation. Or, to put it another way, the inculturation of the symbol system of the western gentile world was a regional inculturation and not a universally applicable theology. Therefore, most of Cosmic Liturgy fell by the wayside while remnants remain, like the presumption that Jesus was born on December 25th.
Fr. James, does this mean that Christmas is a lie?
No, not at all, Christmas is not a lie. We know that Jesus existed not only from Scripture but from sources outside of Christianity as well. We don't know the exact date when Jesus was born, but to assign a day to remember his birth doesn't make Christmas a lie. It simply means we need to be careful not to wrap our faith around a date that not even the first Christians felt a need to emphasize.
Therefore, the next time a friend of yours argues that Jesus wasn't born on December 25th, you don't need to feel the pressure of defending a calendar date under the presumption that this must have been the day Jesus was born (blind radical certitude). Instead, you can simply affirm that we don't know when Jesus was actually born and, given the inculturation of gentile world views into Christianity, we don't have to obsess about the actual date of when Christ was born (healthy inculturation).
Instead, we can focus on what is most true of the days ahead - The promised light of hope that shines in the darkness of our world has been born to us - God made flesh in Jesus Christ. What we celebrate isn't a date on a calendar, but the fact that God loves us so much that God became one of us, walked with us, lived our life, died our death, and rose on the third day.
In this spirit, Merry Christmas! And may the light of hope shine brightly in the darkness of our times. And may we see God's presence in the world around us and with the people we love. Put another way, to recall the sacred friendship I referenced from my college days, let us dance with the Lord this Christmas!
I'm going to step away form my Artemus reflections for one week to answer a question I've been getting a lot lately. What is the question you may ask? Well, you can probably guess from the title of this piece - The Star of Bethlehem. Since my ordination, questions about the star always pop up at Christmas time. Here's the passage from Matthew that references the star.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)
The magi seeing "his star" is a reference to the book of Numbers, which presents a prophecy about a star.
I see him, though not now;
I observe him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise from Israel, (Numbers 24:17)
The one glaring issue with this passage from Numbers is that the prophecy of "a star" is not about a hydrogen nuclear conductor in the sky, but a person. Therefore, even before we look at speculations about what the Star of Bethlehem might have been, Scripture itself poses the question - Is this a story about a celestial object or a person that fulfills a sacred promise?
Now, if it was a reference to a celestial object, we need to ask, "What kind of celestial object was it?" Was it a naturally occurring night sky event we can find on a star chart? Was it a planetary conjunction? Was it something unexpected, like a supernova, that may not have been properly understood at the time? Was it a supernatural event that can't be found on star charts? Or was the star a metaphor to ultimately point to Jesus Christ as "the light shining in the darkness?" (Isaiah 9:2)
This past week, Dennis Sadowski from the Catholic News Service contacted Br. Guy and myself to write a piece on one of the potential natural candidates for the star: The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that will occur on December 21st. The link to the original piece can be found by clicking here or on the image to the right.
Over the years, many astronomers have explored the question, "If the star of Bethlehem was a naturally occurring event, what might it have been?" A number of theories have arisen through those studies, one of them being a planetary conjunction. Do we know definitively that the conjunction that will occur on December 21st was the historic "Star of Bethlehem?" Most likely is was not the star. Again, when looking at Scripture, there is strong evidence that Matthew's telling of the star has more to do with the person of Jesus Christ than a celestial object. Still, might have there been an historic star? Perhaps, but don't let that fascinating question distract you from him who is the light in the darkness: The infant in a manger.
Here's an excerpt from Dennis' article that provides Br. Guy's thoughts on the matter.
“To me, asking ‘What was the star?’ is a lot of fun, but not particularly significant either astronomically or theologically. Nothing’s really at stake if it turns to be this explanation or that explanation,” Jupiter, Saturn to put on ‘Christmas Star’ show at winter solstice, By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service.
In the past, Br, Guy offered some reflections on the Star of Bethlehem for the Catholic News Service. Here's the video that was the product of these discussions.
Spiritual Exercise: What does the star mean to you? Are you looking forward to December 21st to see this conjunction? Whether the conjunction on December 21st was the historic star or not, get out that night, pray for clear skies, and ask yourself while gazing upon the conjunction, "What would it have been like the night Jesus was born?" Click here for a piece from Astronomy Magazine that explains where you will find the conjunction that evening.
Last week, I offered a simple question for you to reflect upon - Should we return to the Moon?
The responses I received, both public and private, revealed three, clear conclusions.
There is definitely a body of people who think we should send people back to the Moon.
There is definitely a body of people who think we should send rovers to the Moon since they are more budget friendly and could maximize the science due to the budget savings.
The third conclusion I wasn't looking for, but become very clear was this - Everyone felt we should go back to the Moon.
Now, something we need to keep in mind is the Artemis Missions are meant to prepare to send humans to Mars. With that in mind, it's not a simple debate of "send people or don't send people to the Moon." If the goal is to put women and men on the Moon to prep for Mars, then having missions with people aboard are essential. Obviously, this aspect of the Artemis Missions leads to another layer of reflection - Should we send people to Mars (and beyond)? We'll save that question for a future post. For now, let's focus on three of the main concerns and interests that came up from last weeks reflection question: Fiscal concerns, scientific benefit, and theological insight.
Looking at the "Follow the Money" argument, the numbers are striking. As a means of comparison, the New Horizon's Mission to flyby Pluto came in at $780.6 million dollars while the Artemis Moon missions will cost between $30 to $40 billion dollars. Obviously, this might not be the fairest of comparisons. The mission objectives of the Pluto flyby and the Artemis missions are very, very different. Also, the Artemis budget reflects multiple missions while the New Horizon's budget reflects only one mission. Still, I think it safe to say that both missions remind us that space exploration is very expensive and this expense is always going to be a point of concern for many people. And sending people to space instead of rovers is even more expensive.
Personally, I'm okay with the price tags. At first glance it is easy to scoff at the expense, thinking of many practical things we could reallocate funds toward on Earth. Yet, when we compare these expenses with other culturally accepted, big ticket items, it brings the numbers into perspective. For example, the BBC reported that the presidential/congressional elect held this year in the United States cost almost $14 billion dollars. This, obviously, points to a number of questions on the ethics of elections when the price tag to elect someone to public office is over fourteen times more expense than sending a probe to Pluto. This post wont explore this hot potato of a political issue, but when you compare the expense of space exploration to other culturally acceptable big ticket items, we see that space exploration is not as fiscally outrageous as one may think. Post your thoughts below on what you think of the expenses involved in space exploration!
From the perspective of science, one of the questions that was presented to me was whether or not humans are essential to do the science of the Artemis missions? To explore this question, we need to get a grasp of what the scientific goals are for Artemis. NASA has made public the mission outline and objectives of the Artemis Missions (Click here for the summary of the main science goals of the missions). After doing so, I would like you to post your thoughts on what you think the Artemis missions should explore? If you would prefer a shorter summary, here's an Artemis interview conducted by NBC.
Some may argue after watching this video, "Of course you need to send people into space if you want to do scientific exploration of Mars and worlds beyond!" Also, the video points out that this expense does have a potential fiscal gain in the exploration of usable resources that could be "mined" and brought back to Earth. This is one of the core truths I have learned over the years about the scientific exploration of space: As much as I would love to argue that the simple desire of the human person to wonder "what is out there" is a good enough reason to go to the Moon, there needs to be a benefit to humanity to justify the mission. Often times, people reduce missions to Mars and other worlds to an exploration to put people on a world that isn't our own. However, there is a big part of the Artemis missions that strive to make life better on this world by exploring other worlds for usable resources.
As true as all of this may be, the argument can be made that many of the missions goals could be met without people ever being sent to the Moon or Mars at a much lower price tag. In the NBC video, the show host was using virtual reality goggles to demonstrate to the viewer different aspects of the Artemis mission. Virtual reality is transforming how things are done on Earth as well, whether it be educational, scientific, or recreational purposes. Could a small army of robot rovers be used on the Moon with humans using virtual reality on Earth to build space stations? Could the same tests be conducted from Earth with no threat to human life through virtual reality? Honestly, I don't know the answers to these questions, but I would love to hear our professional scientists (and well educated enthusiasts) weigh in and share your thoughts below.
Okay, we've touched on money and science, what about faith? Some may think there isn't any theological implications of sending human beings to the Moon and Mars. At one level, that would be a true statement. I haven't heard of NASA exploring theological aspects of Moon and Mars missions nor would I expect them to do so. Still, there are theological questions and implications that are worth asking in light of these missions.
Do these missions change our view of God and religion as we discover things like water and usable resources on other worlds?
Let's say we find water and usable resources on the Moon and Mars. Let's push it a little further and say we find simple organisms on Mars that confirm that life is more common in the universe than we often presume. Does this finding change how we see ourselves as made in God's image and likeness? And let's say an historic event happens in a future mission that would be akin to a first contact with life outside of our common home that would allow for some type of meaningful interaction. Would this change the way we view our place in the universe?
To end my piece this week, let's look at how people of faith have understood past space missions and how those missions informed and transformed their faith life as a means of helping us reflect on what future space missions might reveal about our understanding of God.
Those of you who were around for the Mercury and Apollo Missions, how did the first images of the Earth from the perspective of the Moon not only change how you see our world, but how you see God?
In my priestly ministry, I've heard many reflections on the historic image of Earth-rise captured on Apollo 8. People have shared that Earth-rise was their first awareness of how fragile our world is and gave birth to modern ecological moments, embracing the mentality - As fragile as this precious blue marble is, we need to protect it!
Here is a remaster image of Earth-rise.
In regard to people's view of God, I find few that would say this image did any harm to their faith. If anything, the beauty of this image often strengthened people's faith, seeing the contrast of the barren lunar surface and the blue "life-fest" that is the Earth. Still, the connection of viewing our smallness that evoked the need to protect our common home is something easily forgotten, but monumental for how we view God's creative act and how we are to care for this gift.
Another image of our scientific past that does sometimes challenge people's faith is "the pale blue dot." If the Apollo 8 images from the Moon gave us a sense of the fragile gift of the Earth, images of our common home from Saturn gave us perspective of just how small we are in the universe - really, really small!
This smallness has led many to question God, wondering how beings on such a minuscule place mean anything to God? Perhaps its because I'm young enough to have grown up with these images and benefit from years of prior reflection, but I've never had the feeling that "size matters" when it comes to how I view God in light of the relationship between Earth and the rest of the universe.
One approach to the question of our physical place in the universe in relation to how meaningful we are to God was presented by Fr. Chris Corbally of the Vatican Observatory. In an interview he did with Br. Guy, Chris was asked to reflect upon how such a small creature could mean anything to God?
Chris stated that the problem with thinking we are too small for God to care about us says more about how we limit our understanding of God versus the insignificance of the human person. There are many images from Scripture that state that God is attentive and present to all of creation regardless how significant or insignificant something may appear to be - big or small. In light of this, could our smallness actually affirm our faith? And does it make sense that "the God of Smallness" chose to dwell with insignificance, came into our world through an impoverished family, and taught time and time again that God's presence is to be found in the rejected and lowly of the world? These questions are good food for thought to start my post next week!
Here is the interview I referenced in the previous paragraphs with Fr. Corbally.
We will continue this discussion next week, but, for now, I want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the fiscal, scientific, and theological aspects of exploring space? I'll address these questions in next week's post. That being said, I need comments to put next week's reflection together, so error on the side of sharing thoughts! I will respect every response regardless of the perspectives offered and respond with the same respect.
Happy Monday everyone!
Do you think we should return to the moon? It's a simple question that evokes many complexities. As someone who, since childhood, has loved space missions, science fiction movies, and still hopes to have a priestly assignment on the Moon, I say let's go... and could you sneak me on the mission somehow! At the same time, I realize that I am no pragmatist. Any space mission, no matter how large or small, can face immediate opposition amid the struggles our world faces. Global hunger, poverty, and the ongoing impact of a global pandemic would understandably lead many to argue, "Forget the Moon, we have too many things to address in this world before we explore other worlds." This is a valid argument and I wouldn't blame anyone for feeling this way.
Still, both personally and in my priestly ministry, I have come to appreciate the power of symbol. Sometimes, when our chins are down we need something to catch our eye to pick them up. Where the eyes go the chin will follow. Could a return to the Moon to put, quote NASA, the first woman and the next man on the Moon lift our eyes, chins, and hearts as a people? Could this be a moment of cultural wonder that, similar to the Mercury and Apollo missions, evokes a universal sense of awe and wonder?
I am excited to have my "Apollo Moment" of watching the first woman and next man walk on the Moon. At the same time, I also fear it could be met with a collective "meh" by our world that now finds cyberspace to be the new frontier instead of outer space. One only needs to watch the movie Apollo 13 to see a theatrical depiction of the struggles lunar missions faced just two missions removed from the historic Moon landing of Apollo 11. The highpoint of this struggle came when the "live from the LEM" show that was supposed to be aired on television got scrubbed, described as making a mission to the Moon look as exciting as a trip to Pittsburg (no offense to our Pittsburg readers). Looking at the original footage, it does become clear why the broadcast wasn't nominated for any Emmy awards.
In the weeks to come, I'm going to reflect on the Artemus mission in more detail. For now, I will leave you with a couple NASA videos to explain the Artemus Mission and ask you to reflection on a simple, yet complicated question.
Should we return to the Moon?
Leave your comments below and, together, let us get excited for the upcoming Moon missions! In time, may that excitement prepare us for the long term missions of sending humanity to Mars!
Once again, my apologies for my absence. Any of you who have gone through a job addition know that one of the first challenges is establishing a new workflow. So, is my new workflow... flowing? Let's just say we're in the river and we found the current. Now we just need to figure out how to keep with the current!
In some ways, I think it's a Godsend my concluding reflection for Fratelli Tutti was delayed. The reason for this thought is that we are a week away from starting a new Church year. When we think of a new year, we often think of a change of heart, a new way of seeing the world, and finding hope to be better people. From this standpoint, can we see Fratelli Tutti as part of this time of new beginnings? Let's find out!
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis sets the parable of the Good Samaritan as the central Biblical image of the Encyclical. In doing so, he is reminding us of Jesus' call to view human dignity in a completely new way (or perhaps to see human dignity as God intended from the beginning).
In the time before Christ, the Covenant between God and humanity was seen as limited to the Children of Israel. "Love thy neighbor" really meant "Love thy fellow Hebrew." Sadly, this view of the Covenant was used as justification to mistreat those deemed outside the Covenant, such as Samaritans.
Time and time again, Jesus presents a more expansive understanding of the Covenant. The most blatant example being when Jesus states in Luke 6:27-38 to not only love thy neighbor, but also love thy enemy. In doing so, Jesus shows us that the people we perceive as "enemy" are not enemies at all. We are members of one human family and should treat each other as such. The true enemy is evil, the privation of the good. Ergo the oft used but oft forgotten maxim, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."
Let's refresh our memory of the story of the Good Samaritan. Here is the parable as presented in Fratelli Tutti.
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”(Lk 10:25-37). (Fratelli Tutti. 56)
Shows mercy - What a beautiful understanding of right action. And being that Christianity is a faith with strong emphasis on imitating the actions of Christ, it reminds us that what we are actually imitating is the mercy of God. The irony of the story of the Good Samaritan is that those who should have acted with mercy - the priest and the levite - refused to show mercy to the man beaten and forgotten. It was the forgotten one, the Samaritan, who acted according to the Covent by showing mercy. By extension, this passage should pierce the heart of every Christian with the reflective question: Do I show mercy in the universal manner Jesus calls for or am I exclusive with whom I am merciful toward?
How does this story connect to the Church's New Year? This coming Sunday is the beginning of Advent, a paradoxical season. We begin our new Church year by joyfully anticipating Christ's final return in glory. So... we start by looking forward to the end times? Yes! For many, Christ's final return in glory is met with fear, presuming war and cataclysmic doom. However, the cry of Advent in the Greek, Maranatha, indicates a joyful anticipation of Christ's return, not fear. It's a beautiful paradox, reminding us how Jesus often would take culturally presumed norms and turn them on their heads.
Speaking as a Pastor, we all need to be "turned on our heads" this Advent. We have been struggling through a national pandemic that has created great division, death, fear, and denial. At least in the United States, a toxic political environment has emerged that is worse than any I can recall in my brief 47 years of life. And as we approach the months of December, January, and February, I fear the combination of "Covid fatigue" along with months that can be long, dark, and cold in the Northern Hemisphere will create a culture of depression. To state the problem simply, we have enough in our world that communicates a "dark Advent" of doom and death. We need "an Advent of light" and joy to signal a new beginning.
And what is at the heart of this new beginning I pray comes this Advent? A renewed sense of the communal love that all of us are to share as members of the human family. A new sense of detesting the divisions that fear and hatred have created in our world. Embracing the simple truth that I am my brother's, sister's, neighbor's, friend's, enemy's, and stranger's keeper. And I pray this Advent can be a return to embracing the human family in its true catholic/universal sense, while also distancing ourselves from the trap of recreating an exclusionary view of God's Covenant.
Here is this same sentiment as presented by Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti.
57. This parable has to do with an age-old problem. Shortly after its account of the creation of the world and of man, the Bible takes up the issue of human relationships. Cain kills his brother Abel and then hears God ask: “Where is your brother Abel?” (Gen 4:9). His answer is one that we ourselves all too often give: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (ibid.). By the very question he asks, God leaves no room for an appeal to determinism or fatalism as a justification for our own indifference. Instead, he encourages us to create a different culture, in which we resolve our conflicts and care for one another.
58. The Book of Job sees our origin in the one Creator as the basis of certain common rights: “Did not he who made me in the womb also make him? And did not the same one fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:15). Many centuries later, Saint Irenaeus would use the image of a melody to make the same point: “One who seeks the truth should not concentrate on the differences between one note and another, thinking as if each was created separately and apart from the others; instead, he should realize that one and the same person composed the entire melody”.
59. In earlier Jewish traditions, the imperative to love and care for others appears to have been limited to relationships between members of the same nation. The ancient commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18) was usually understood as referring to one’s fellow citizens, yet the boundaries gradually expanded, especially in the Judaism that developed outside of the land of Israel. We encounter the command not to do to others what you would not want them to do to you (cf. Tob 4:15). In the first century before Christ, Rabbi Hillel stated: “This is the entire Torah. Everything else is commentary”. The desire to imitate God’s own way of acting gradually replaced the tendency to think only of those nearest us: “The compassion of man is for his neighbour, but the compassion of the Lord is for all living beings” (Sir 18:13).
60. In the New Testament, Hillel’s precept was expressed in positive terms: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). This command is universal in scope, embracing everyone on the basis of our shared humanity, since the heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Mt 5:45). Hence the summons to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
61. In the oldest texts of the Bible, we find a reason why our hearts should expand to embrace the foreigner. It derives from the enduring memory of the Jewish people that they themselves had once lived as foreigners in Egypt: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34). “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut 24:21-22). The call to fraternal love echoes throughout the New Testament: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness” (1 Jn 2:10-11). “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 Jn 3:14). “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).
62. Yet this call to love could be misunderstood. Saint Paul, recognizing the temptation of the earliest Christian communities to form closed and isolated groups, urged his disciples to abound in love “for one another and for all” (1 Thess 3:12). In the Johannine community, fellow Christians were to be welcomed, “even though they are strangers to you” (3 Jn 5). In this context, we can better understand the significance of the parable of the Good Samaritan: love does not care if a brother or sister in need comes from one place or another. For “love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home… Love exudes compassion and dignity”.
Avoiding the trap of closed communities. In many ways, this has been at the heart of the psychological stress of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Out of concern for the common good, we have physically closed ourselves from the activities we typically participate in to protect each other's health, which is a good thing. As we have done this, has our heart also become closed to the love we all need? Have we found creative ways to stay connected with the community of faith that is part of our lifeblood not only as Christians, but as a human species? Have we taken time to pray with the hope-filling question, "How will I live as a child of the Covenant once I can fully embrace my neighbor?" Or have we chosen a darker road of deeper exclusion, allowing physical distance to bleed into an emotional and spiritual distance from each other and God?
As word of vaccines and new treatments offer glimmers of hope amid this pandemic, let's ready our hearts this Advent to turn our world on its head in a good way. Let us distance ourselves from the cultural hate, distrust, and fear that is tearing our global community apart. Let us not behave in an exclusionary manner, seeking only to affirm those who are closest to us. Let us have a true Advent of embracing the breadth of God's Covenant. To put it simply, this Advent, let us start the Church's new year by loving one another as Christ has loved us.
Spiritual Exercise: As we approach Advent, is your heart filled with hope or fear? Are you joyfully awaiting with hope the end of this pandemic and a return to communal life or has depression and fear created barriers that need to be torn down. Wherever you find yourselves spiritually, let Christ turn you and our world on its head. It's time to move away from a culture of distrust and hate. Let us live as citizens in the Kingdom of God and rebuild the bonds of trust and love.