Space and the Cosmic Christ

IMG_1379We gather this morning within eyesight of an amazing object. In the north transept is Tim Peake’s spacecraft, in which he returned to earth in 2016 from 6 months on board the International Space Station. It is quite something and when you look at the science involved truly breath-taking. We talk of this building, this Cathedral, as inducing awe and wonder in those who come, built as it is employing the science of physics and maths, so that the forces and lines combine with stunning effect in astounding architecture. So many who come here are wowed by what they see and leave having been touched by a glimpse of something deeply spiritual and inspiring. Space travel is also remarkable, even though it is nearly 50 years since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. We might take it for granted, but the narrow margins for error are such that achieving lift off, let alone re-entry, is truly incredible.

A few days after opening our exhibition, Tim Peake was quizzed on BBC Radio 4 about science and religion (2:20 into the programme). His reply was that looking at the earth from space made him open to the possibility of intelligent design behind creation, and also that it could have been a spontaneous random event and have just come to be. Science and religion answer different questions. Science looks at how and what existence is in terms of maths, physics and chemistry. Religion asks different questions about purpose, reason for being and delights in wonder. Awe and wonder are the foundations of faith and what better vantage point than beyond the horizon, beyond the clouds, beyond the atmosphere. This is amazing. Faith is born in the wonder of that amazement as we contemplate and ponder what lies at its source and its goal, its purpose and meaning, its ultimate dependency. That we can do this is itself a further cause of that faith.

On 20th July 1969, just after the Apollo 11 landing craft had touched down on the surface of the moon, one of the astronauts, Buzz Aldrin contemplating all that had just taken place decided this was the moment for a ceremony of gratitude and hope. He wrote some years later in his memoir ‘Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon’ (2009):

“Weeks before, as the Apollo mission drew near, I had originally asked Dean Woodruff, pastor at Webster Presbyterian Church, where my family and I attended services when I was home in Houston, to help me come up with something I could do on the moon, some appropriate symbolic act regarding the universality of seeking… I settled on a well-known expression of spirituality: celebrating the first Christian Communion on the moon, much as Christopher Columbus and other explorers had done when they first landed in their “new world.”

I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence… and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.” (pp25-27)

The wonder of space, of time, of how our small planet floats in the vastness of the universe, is a moment to be still and reflect, to be thankful. For viewed through the eyes of faith, this is a wonder to behold. That in all that there is, we have the life we have, of love and hope, passion and praise. That there is so much more to this universe than we can comprehend or have any inkling of. And deep within the science and the silence, there is the purpose of God who brings it into being and holds it; not just the first cause but the one on whom it depends. Space can feel empty, but it is not, it is the blanket of the eternal in which we are enfolded with the love of a creator who is far more magnificent than we can ever know. Without it we would not be.

Not only do we gather this morning within sight of a craft which has been in space, into this blanket which enfolds us, but we are also not far from the great mural in the ceiling of the Apse Chapel, at the east end of this great Cathedral. This depicts Christ as the vine with the 12 apostles on the branches. Around it is that text Buzz Aldrin read as he took Communion on the moon, from John’s gospel (15:5). “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” Those vine branches extend beyond the limits of our imagination. They reach to the moon and beyond. Nothing, no distance, can separate us from God’s love and presence, and however far we travel we remain within God’s universe, which is far bigger than we can fathom, enfolded in the blanket of the eternal.

The old argument that science and religion don’t mix is very stale. They mix, meet and inform our understanding, making it so much richer. When we talk about Christianity being a universal faith, space travel reminds us that if we take that seriously it will expand our gaze to places we never saw as being possible before. In the words of the 11th century Archbishop, St Anselm, faith seeks understanding: it is through the eyes of faith that we seek to understand more and more. This is not in conflict but rather the two, faith and science, enrich our understanding together.

Our gospel reading this morning, which came from an earlier part of John’s gospel to that text about the vine and branches (John 6:56-69), continued the passage where Jesus reflects on himself as the bread of life, that eating bread and wine we commune with the foundation of the universe. What better way to celebrate the awe-inspiring nature of space travel and the marvels it opens up. And even if this is too difficult for some, like Peter, after whom this Cathedral is named, we find that in Jesus are the words of eternal life for he is the Holy One of God (vv68-69). Or as we stand next to the space craft, he is the Cosmic Christ, the one who reveals what is both beyond the world and the very ground on which it depends. This is a deep moment of philosophy. The theologian Keith Ward, in a book on science and religion, encourages us to look beyond even big bang to what he thinks is the real question, that creation depends on God. God is not just the origin, but that origin, that creating is an expression of the dependency we have and creation is held by God as the foundation of all that there is.

Space travel expands our horizons and our theology with it. When we talk of Jesus as the vine and we being the branches, and do this on the moon, dependency on his life and love takes on a much deeper significance and meaning. In turn, to talk of him as the bread of life, is to say that in this Eucharist we commune with the foundation of the universe. And so I end with the prayer I have written to accompany this exhibition, which reflects on these themes and all that this space craft brings before us.

Lord of time and space,

all creation springs from your love;

earth, moon, stars and planets in their orbit.

You give order to this universe,

bringing life into being.

As we gaze in awe and wonder,

and discover more about the cosmos,

may we live in harmony with it,

be deepened in faith,

and rejoice with thankful hearts;

for nothing separates us from your love,

which reaches beyond every horizon;

through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 26th August 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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