Scientists tell us that using a powerful telescope array from the South Pole they have been able to detect, or see, the oldest light in the universe - about 14 billion years old. Much as I want to explain to you how it is possible to see the light of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, I find I am unable to do it. It is not my field. I have looked up resources that purport to put the explanation in layman’s terms, and I would happily regurgitate those explanations to you. But even they are beyond me. Nevertheless, I find it entirely plausible that we have looked up at the sky and seen – insofar as we can see light that is not actually visible to our eyes – or at least recorded the presence of light that originated nearly 14 billion years ago. And I delight to think that such is the rigor of the human intellectual endeavor and that such is the liveliness of human imagination that we could achieve such a thing. Moses had to climb a mountain just to see the Promised Land toward which he had been journeying for forty years, and into which he would never step foot. But we can glance up from our lap-tops and look backwards for 14 billion years, and take pictures of it.
I trust that it pleases God in some measure to allow us such a vantage point; that he is ready to allow us to view secrets that were long tucked away in secret corners of his attic, unavailable to the prying eyes of older generations. God has left the keys for us to find, in order to unlock the doors of the ancient chambers of time and space, and allowed us to rummage through the boxes there, to piece together pictures of the Beginning – or at least as close as we can get to the Beginning – wherein he has always promised he could be found. The scientists say we can now see up to just about 380,000 years away from the Beginning – which they seem to think is pretty close, though it still sounds far away to me.
I am told that Religion and Science are supposed to rumble about the Beginning: stark disagreement is supposed to define our posture toward one another. But about at least one thing most of us agree: there is nothing for us to remember about the Beginning; none of us was there; it would be a matter of time before humans came on the scene. So when we look back at the Beginning of time – or as close as we can get to it – we are seeing something, recording something, we have never seen before. It did not shape our human experience, it is not a part of our corporate memory, there are no human shadows to be found dancing in the light of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.
Back on earth, when the Rectory was built in 1893, it was the only building in the Saint Mark’s cluster of buildings on Locust Street that was built with a flat roof. This piece of information seems incidental until you realize what easy access one has to the roof of the Rectory. Using only the power of one’s imagination, you can carry up to the rooftop there a special kind of telescopic array that allows you to look up into the sky and see back in time.
This project I have undertaken on a lovely summer’s night – for it takes almost no time at all to build even the most sophisticated telescope from one’s imagination, and the materials are remarkably easy to carry up the stairs. Such a telescope – the kind you build with your imagination – cannot reliably detect the light of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation – not in a way suitable for publication in peer-reviewed journals, anyway. But it can look back to almost any point in time, if you want it to. And being a church telescope means that its lenses have been ground and shaped by a certain memory. It’s more sensitive to light at certain places on the spectrum. We see images more clearly with such a telescope that shaped our corporate memory, with identifiable human shadows, in the shape of figures we can name, dancing in the light of the stars. And it is a beautiful thing to go up to the Rectory roof on a clear summer’s night and to stare through the imaginary telescope into the distant past of history and to listen. For with this telescope you can hear, as well as see – it was easy enough to build it that way in my imagination: all the parts were free!
Not long ago, I was up there, looking and listening; turning the dials to see what I could pick up from the past. And I heard this question from ages past: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And I knew immediately who it was they were talking about, since I’d come across this conversation before in the scriptures. And standing there on the rooftop, I realized how immediately the question translated to the present moment, how equally perplexing – maybe even more so – that question seems today as it did all those centuries ago, and how it might confuse people who pass by the church if they ever stop to wonder what it is we do in here.
How can this man give us his flesh to eat? It seems a perfectly reasonable question. Early Christians were looked at with significant suspicion, since they seemed to be talking like cannibals. But they were not cannibals. They were good Jewish boys and girls who mostly kept kosher in the earliest days. Which made the question all the more poignant: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? And do we need a whole new set of dishes for it?
How can this man give us his flesh to eat?
What they discovered was this: that Jesus was not inviting them to go at him with knives and forks. Rather, he was opening up to them one of the secrets of God’s mysterious love. He was allowing them to enter into a new chamber of God’s life, where they had never been before. They discovered that it pleased God to allow them a new vantage point from which to see his work of salvation: reclining by his Son at a table, praying with him in a garden, walking with him toward the Cross, weeping with his mother at his death, and waiting for his resurrection.
“I am the living Bread,” Jesus said. But they did not yet know what they were seeing, what they were hearing. They had not yet seen all that we have seen. Until he sat at table with them and broke the bread and blessed the cup; until he told them to wait with him while he prayed; until he challenged them to take up their own cross; until he hung and died on his Cross; until he rose from the grave, and made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread. All these were pieces of a puzzle they put together, as God slowly widened the aperture of their vision, and let more light into the lens, and helped them see, and let them cast their own shadows, their own questions on the image that we can peer into from the telescope on the roof of the Rectory.
And what about us? How can this man give us his flesh to eat?
Well, what’s the matter with you? Do you really need a flat roof and a Rectory? Can’t you do this with me now? Can’t you focus with me the lens that’s hidden up in the steeple of this church and points toward God? Can’t you find the knobs to turn in your mind’s eye, so you can see what’s detected there? Can’t you adjust them to look back at his supper with disciples? Can’t you hear him say, “This is my Body. This is my Blood. Take, eat. Do this in remembrance of me”?
Do you believe that we are able to look back at the origins of the universe and see light that is 14 billion years old, but we can’t look back and remember what this means? Do you believe God made our vision so dim, our imaginations so dull? Do you think the light they are looking at from their telescopes is just a memory of light that is 14 billion years old, and not the real thing? And do you think the words we hear when they echo to us from only two thousand years ago are really just a memory and not the real thing? You don’t think he had another kind of remembrance in mind? You don’t think he knew we’d be able to see 14 billion years into the past some day?
I love to go up to my rooftop observatory and look up into the present and see the past hurtling toward me, fast as light, and hear the ancient words, and know they are alive. I love to lengthen to the focus of my telescopic array and look further back in time to the very Beginning, which I can do with the greatest of ease, listening for the clear sound of the beating of wings over water that was the only sound to be heard in the Beginning, and then a voice that seems to be saying, “I will be who I will be.”
I am strengthened by the knowledge that there are real telescopes that can see almost as far as my telescope can see, telescopes that can see light that originated 14 billion years ago.
But I can see a light that is older still, a light that was there in the Beginning.
And it takes only an adjustment of the lens to see that light take shape, as he is born of a human mother. And then I can hear, from my rooftop, the man that that child became offer his Body and his Blood for me.
And when I wonder, how can this man give us his flesh to eat? I have only to look up with they eyes of my heart, to see where past and present hurtle toward one another at the speed of light. And I remember how it is that God gives us signs to help us see the work he does secretly and silently, so that we will know we have been fed. And we don’t have to wonder how he can give us his flesh to eat: we have only to open our mouths, and believe.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 August 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia