Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 14, 2022

Sister Ana Cloughly, OSB reflects on Cosmic Chaos and the scripture readings: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

As many of you know, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has taken its first images of the far distant reaches of the universe. The first images were revealed by President Biden with NASA on the Feast of St. Benedict, July 11, 2022. This date is significant for me personally because of St Benedict’s vision related to us in the Dialogues of St. Gregory. In Benedict’s vision, he saw the whole world in a single ray of light. The “Deep Field” image (from the telescope) reveals galaxies that date back over four billion years and some perhaps as far as thirteen billion years ago. Many of the points of light are entire galaxies. It occurred to me that St. Benedict’s vision gave him a perspective humankind would not be able to confirm for fifteen hundred years.

JWST has the capability to see things no human eye can see which is a miracle to me.  NASA describes the way JWST takes images this way: “The Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec) will operate over a wavelength range of 0.6 to 5 microns. A spectrograph (also sometimes called a spectrometer) is used to disperse light from an object into a spectrum. Analyzing the spectrum of an object can tell us about its physical properties, including temperature, mass, and chemical composition. The atoms and molecules in the object imprint lines on its spectrum that uniquely fingerprint each chemical element present and can reveal a wealth of information about physical conditions in the object.” (https://webb.nasa.gov/content/observatory/instruments/nirspec.html).

The first images literally took my breath away. They reveal the anatomy of our universe. These images fill me with awe and wonder. They also humble me to my very core.

So, I’m sure by now you are curious as to how the Webb images relate to today’s gospel. Early theologians believed the Book of Nature is the first source of God’s revelation to humankind. When read alongside sacred scripture, the “book” of nature and the study of God’s creations would lead to a knowledge of God.

My Scripture teacher, Sister Diane Liston, taught that there are two ways to read scripture. She would tell us to put on our Hebrew hat to use the historical critical method to gain insight into the culture of the people and the spiritual significance events held for people of their day. The second way is viewing the scriptures through the lens of our own experience. I’m choosing the lens of my own experience today.

In my Visio Divina withthe JWST images, I have been meditating on the life cycle of the universe. One of the images shows a star nursery, or an area in space in which there are the conditions necessary for the elements to coalesce into stars, planets, and moons. The image shows this phenomenon in stunning detail. Another shows the remains of a star which has burned all its fuel and has exploded then fallen in on itself; in layman’s terms, the remnants of a star’s death. It occurs to me that all of creation does the same. From the microcosm at the quantum level to the macrocosm of the universe and all things in between come together and break apart, moving from cosmos (or ordering) to chaos and back again to being ordered in a different way.

In comparison to the billions upon billions of galaxies, I feel very small and insignificant. This is where my very being is truly humbled. To think that God created everything that is and cares so deeply for our pale blue dot, the earth (as seen from Voyager upon its exit of our galaxy) is mind blowing.

Today we read that Jesus tells his disciples he has not come to establish peace on the earth but rather division.  He speaks of a baptism (his passion and death) which will set a fire on the earth. He wishes it were already burning. Then, uncharacteristically, he tells the disciples that he has come to bring division even at the most basic level for the people of his time, division in families.

In the light of the universe Jesus’ words in today’s gospel begin to take on a new meaning.  Jesus didn’t break the natural law, he exemplified them. His life, death and resurrection set into motion the chaos necessary for new life to begin to take shape.

Sometimes I can become a bit myopic when I watch the news. War in Ukrainian and Yemen, uprisings in central and South America and Sri Lanka, food insecurity for the earth’s poorest, the effects of climate change and our inability to work together to change our dependence on fossil fuels, tensions with China. It all feels so overwhelming. So chaotic. My prayer is usually, God, where are you?

Much can rightly be said about the horrors persons who call themselves Christians have wrought on the earth. But much more can be said for the great strides humankind has made because of people who have chosen to live a gospel life. In space, the explosions are catastrophic, and the fires burn for millions of years. And, the fires produce heavier elements, the elements necessary for life. In his fiery analogy, Jesus speaks the truth about what needs to take place in every generation. Outdated social structure must pass away. To the people invested in these old systems, their passing burns. Fire is destructive and it’s the image we use to describe the life-giving Holy Spirit. What is true for physical systems is also true for human constructed systems. Systems of culture, religion, government, and business are built, they work for a while and then they break down. The whole process can seem pointless unless we start to see the bigger picture. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ speaks of the “Omega Point,” a future when everything in the universe spirals toward a final point of unification. The Omega Point resembles Christ who draws all things into himself. What never changes is God’s love. 

So, if Jesus didn’t come to establish peace on the earth, why does he give us his peace, “My peace I leave you, my peace I give you” (John 14:27)? Perhaps peace is a way of being rather than an absence of war and violence. Christ’s peace permeates the core of our being so when bad things happen, our trust in God is not shaken. Christ’s peace doesn’t grant us a pass on working for justice and trying to end violence. It gives us the strength and courage to do what is necessary even if that means being at odds with those in our family.

The images from JWST remind me that God sees the big picture, both Cosmos and Chaos.  The telescope itself gives me a great deal of hope for humankind because despite our differences, its construction was an international endeavor. Thousands of people from all over earth had to cooperate to make the telescope a reality. God is not limited. And when humans work together, neither are we.