Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Big Bang--Shebang

According to a science report on NPR the other day, we now know that the most distant parts of the universe are traveling outward at ever greater speeds--accelerating, in other words. Now, I don't know about you, but it amazes me that we can even say we know these ARE the most distant parts of the universe. How do we know there isn't more out there that we just can't see? Well, in fact, we're now thinking that there must, indeed, be parts we can't see--but I'm getting ahead of myself.
So, imagine the Big Bang. This is an image we can get our minds around--sort of like Fourth of July fireworks, a really big one, with colored lights streaming in every direction. (Ooos and ahs) What happens to that big explosion? The brightly lit particles stream up and out at first, but then begin to curve downward as they decelerate, and end up falling vertically down as they darken and go out.
Isn't this the image you had of the Big Bang? I think it was mine. In fact, I thought that was what entropy was all about, in a very loose sense--that gradual loss of energy that affects the universe, so that it all slows down little by little. So what is this speeding up all about? It seems counter-intuitive, and apparently the scientists thought so too. According to the science reporter on NPR, they attribute this effect to a mysterious Black Energy that permeates the universe, or is perhaps out beyond the known universe. Or maybe, he added, there could be other dimensions.
It tickles me to know there are still mysteries--real mysteries. This is something we hadn't expected, something that doesn't fit our theory, something we can't explain. It all begins to sound very Genesis 1-like, as we tell ourselves stories to explain what we don't have any knowledge of. Because, at this point, how can we verify this? Someone, sometime, will come up with some data that might suggest Black Energy, but it's hard to see how it can be verifiable, at least for some time to come. As for other dimensions?
Nevertheless, my dad--an oceanographer and chemist, not qualified to discuss astro-physics--speculated about other dimensions. After Mom passed away, it became his matter-of-fact explanation of death and the after-life. "They're all just right over there," he'd say, gesturing toward the other side of the room. "It's just like they've passed through a veil." He said this in the same way he'd explain a chemical reaction or a Pacific current.
This makes me wonder if we really ought to be looking down our noses at Creationists, with their 7-day version of the beginning of things. Quite frankly, I find the story evolutionists tell far more awesome than the skeletal version of Genesis. Our Darwinian-Einsteinian universe gives us an inside view of what we saw only from the outside in Genesis, and contains quirks and wrinkles we can barely fathom. But at the end of the day, we are still having to tell stories to explain the loose ends.
As we come to the end of the universe, we have to face up to the biggest question of all: What lies beyond?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Joining the Human Race

How's that for a subtitle to The Baptism of the Lord?
It struck me during an experience I had that could be seen as analogous to Jesus' own baptism--one you had not intended. That is, John, out baptizing that day, had no idea his cousin Jesus, whose ministry he knew would be greater than his own, would show up with sinners waiting to be baptized. That wasn't what he would have planned in the way of inaugurating this younger cousin into doing the Lord's work. I mean, come on! How about a semicha--an ordination or something? But this showing up unannounced! It was jarring...

Since I love the feast of The Baptism of the Lord, I always hope it will fall on the Sunday after Epiphany, where it belongs, so we can celebrate it with music and liturgy. But this year, due to the squinching up of feasts with Christmas and New Year's falling on Sundays, the Baptism got relegated to the Monday following Epiphany.

I resolved that I would attend 7:00 mass down at the little daily mass chapel at the Carmel Mission--and then perhaps go for a coffee at Cardenali's Coffee Roasting to celebrate further. Monday mornings are not a good time to inaugurate unusual feats of virtue, however, and I overslept the 6am wake-up time. Well, I could still go to the noon mass, I thought, and continue on from there to my job at SandCastles Toys afterwards.

When I reached the heavy wood door to the chapel, though, I was faced with a paper sign tacked on by the staff: "Dear Parishioners, due to the shortage of priests, we will not be able to offer mass today at this time. We will still offer mass at the usual 5:30 time." Disappointed, I turned to go, wondering how I would spend an entire hour before going to work. Half way to the car, I stopped and turned back. I could at least pray for a few minutes.

Entering into the twilit space, I heard the drone of a rosary being prayed by a small devoted collection of would-be mass-goers. Frankly, I'd hoped for quiet in which to meditate rather than the rote prayers of the rosary, but as a Catholic schooled in the prayers of my faith, I couldn't hear the prayers without my voice automatically joining theirs. I found the rhythm of the prayer sweeping over me as I responded, "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen." At the beginning of the next decade, the leader's Irish-tinged voice began, "Our Father, who art in heaven...anyone?" Someone else took over leading the prayers. (Catholics have long used a call-response pattern in prayer: the leader prays the first half of the prayer, the rest chime in on the second half.)

I could at least meditate on the Baptism, I thought. So, what WAS Jesus doing there being baptized? (I've only known about this for almost 60 years, so why hadn't I wondered this before?) John was preaching a baptism of repentance, and what did Jesus have to repent--at least, according to our theology? Yet, there he was, presenting himself with the sinners, acknowledging publicly his sins.
Jews do this even today at Yom Kippur, where, as members of one People, they recognize that, when one has sinned, all have sinned. Each takes on the guilt of the whole. John was offering a similar experience for those of his time, but deritualizing it to make it hit home more. It's easy to acknowledge sinfulness if you can rationalize that it wasn't really you that was guilty but just guilt by association. But when you have to go forward alone, it somehow emphasizes the reality of your own responsibility. Jesus chose to acknowledge publicly his belonging to a sinful people, his taking part in sinfulness, even though he would ultimately heal the wounds of sin. In other words, this feast is a celebration of Jesus' full participation in the human race.

These thoughts grew in me as I counted out the Hail Marys on my fingers. (Why do we have 10 of them otherwise?) There went the leader once more, "Our Father...anyone?" I took the ball and ran with it. "Our Father," I began, a sense of empowerment flowing into me as I prayed in my public voice.

Interestingly, this was the first act of leadership I've performed in the church since I ceased to be the Director of Religious Education at the Postgraduate School. Over 20 years of leadership in the Church, and now I only join my voice to the Mission choir alto section and participate with the faithful in the acclamations of the mass. Such a little thing, but leading two decades of the rosary was, in its way, a come-back.

Those moments in the filtered light of the chapel said a lot about where the church is today--and has always been. It's a church of people--the people Jesus decided to join, the people now joined in Him. Sure, we all love a glorious liturgy, we all treasure the Eucharist. But the Church is the people at work and at prayer. It doesn't take clergy to do that.
At Jesus' baptism the clouds opened and the voice of the Father was heard to say, "This is my beloved Son; hear him." Still today the clouds open, and we do hear.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Epiphany: There are Herods...

I belong to a Small Christian Community in which we meet one morning a week to discuss our lives, world events and the readings for the following Sunday. Sounds fairly unexciting, I suppose, to those unfamiliar with the idea.
This group began in a local parish some years back as part of the RENEW process, where a large segment of the parish divided into groups like this for weekly discussion, following an order of procedure that would keep us unified with the Sunday's theme. The idea was to build community as people began sharing their faith with one another in a safe environment, to build faith, and to make the Sunday liturgy more meaningful, since we would come to it prepared to listen and hear its message to us.
In the beginning it was my parents who belonged to the group, but when I moved here six years ago, after Mom's death, Dad was hosting the group. It was a leaderless group in some ways--a la Scott Peck, where everyone took responsibility. Dad always had a relevant book going on a topic relating to the Church and would report on it. Sr. Helen brought to us issues of social justice, especially relating to the prisons. Connie became the parish representative who brought us our weekly reflection pages. Mary brought bakery treats. Caroline brought articles of interest.
We are actually something of a maverick among such groups. While the parish stresses the importance of using the reflection pages as our guide, we have tended to go more with whatever topic strikes us as important. Sometimes that means discussing our lives; sometimes it's current events. But we always end with the readings of the Sunday following, where, we've come to realize, we will always find answers to the questions we've raised.
The week before Epiphany one couple present was pondering their future--to return to Spain, where their retirement would be much more affordable, or to remain in California, close to their children. After agonizing over the choices, each of which posed gains and losses, they discovered in the Gospel the reminder of God's both leading the magi to the Christ Child and returning them safely to their own land.
In my own life a troubling question arose in those days leading up to Epiphany--one involving a move I didn't feel ready for. After worrying over the problem, I told myself I would hear my answer in the Sunday's readings once more, and especially in the homily. For I'm finding, in this church, that as often as not the homily zeroes in on what's bugging me, like an arrow hitting the bull's eye.
Sure enough. After talking about the Magi and the star in general terms, Fr. John said, "Now, this is how this all strikes me in my own life. We all have areas in which we are alienated, from which we need to be restored to our sense of belonging. "(That was the message of the first reading.) The Magi come to that in finding the Christ they were looking for, who offers the whole world salvation. God led them to that unerringly. I quote this loosely, but the next words were his exactly: "But...BUT, there are Herods in our lives." What this reading tells us is that sometimes God has to lead us back to our home by another route. It may not be the way we thought we needed to travel, but God will take us safely on our way.
Since I have some traveling in the offing, some life changes to make, this spoke powerfully to me. I don't see yet which way I will need to go, but I am reassured that God will show me when the time is right, as He showed the wise men in a dream.

As a postscript, I wonder if those irritating early morning awakenings, when we recall all the difficulties our life poses and can only lie and agonize over them, --if those awakenings are like the dreams people like Joseph and the wise men had. There's something about the things we sweat over in those early hours that is naked and exposed. We're unable to cloak the issues in the rationalizations of daylight, and can only gaze on them in their stark spectral form. Painful but true. Material for prayer or despair.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Faith is something you pledge--to God, to another. It's a covenant. It's what God, Adonai, extended to Abraham: I will be your God. I will make of you a people more numerous than the stars. You will be my people. It's something we're in together.

So, inevitably, at the holiday dinner table, up comes the comment, "How can you possibly belong to a church that treats certain people as second-class citizens?" (Which people are those? women? gays? non-clerics? lay people? Lots of possibilities here.)
I never just sit there anymore when these questions get asked, no matter how rhetorical. I don't demand to know how you can possibly belong to a country that bullied its way into Iraq with great "shock and awe" against the will of most of the world. I don't ridicule you for remaining part of a nation that allows its poor to die for lack of adequate health care, while dwindling numbers can afford health insurance.
But all my life I've been subjected to this kind of crass comment from people who apparently take freedom of religion to mean freedom to attack anyone else's. Years ago I would sit in silence when such remarks were made, hoping nobody knew I belonged to this benighted church they were attacking.
No more. Perhaps the greatest line in the history of film, as far as I'm concerned, is the one delivered by Olivia Dukakis' character in Moonstruck: "I know who I am." Maybe it's the gift of a certain age. I know who I am now, and I don't mind standing my ground. In fact, it's a game. The sparring is stimulating to the thought processes.
So, why do I stay in this Catholic church that does still take its feudal structure more seriously than the pledge of faith with its people?
Well, it's like what I said in the beginning. Why do I stay in a country that used lies to justify its war in Iraq? a country that tolerates a second-class health care system that excludes a large percentage of its people? one that still resorts to capital punishment, along with a handful of the least-enlightened of the world's nations? that refuses to work with the other nations of the world in reducing pollution?
Where else would I go? Am I going to find another group of people that have managed to get beyond being human, with both the dignity and degradation that state spans? Back in the day, people went to Canada, and I thought about that too. I still think about it. But I've made my lot with America now, and this is where I belong. My country right or wrong? I'm not afraid to see it as wrong, but since I'm part of it, I can only do my part to right the situation.
The same goes for the church. As a body I'm part of, I have to groan with the growing pains--basking in its moments of glory, and blushing in its moments of shame.
But this is what I would say about the church. How can I NOT be part of a church that serves on the front lines in the major disasters world wide? How can I NOT be part of a church that begged George Bush not to invade Iraq? How can I NOT be part of a church that cries out for justice for the poor and down-trodden? How can I NOT be part of Mother Teresa's church? a church that has established orphanages, hospitals and schools, serving the lowliest as well as the wealthy?
Looking at the United States (or China or France or Russia) or at the Church (or Judaism or Methodism or...) and saying "How can you belong to a group that...?" is like looking at a caterpillar and saying, "How can you not be a butterfly?"