Shared Suffering

This is a post about suffering, and the suffering of God with his creatures. One of the most radical things about Christianity is its central belief that God didn’t choose to make the Messiah a glorious political leader, but to make him God’s own incarnated Logos — which in Greek signifies Word, Mind, Logic, Reason. Even more radical than this is the belief that in joining himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God took upon himself all of the human condition. Not just love, laughter, and all the good stuff; he took suffering, pain, heartache, betrayal, abandonment, grief, and the weight of all the sin of humankind as expressed through the torture and gruesome murder of a Roman crucifixion. His purpose wasn’t the establishment of a political kingdom, but the once-and-for-all reconciliation of humanity to God through forgiveness of sins and infinite mercy…and the ultimate transcendence of death through the Resurrection. Indeed, the oracles of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah predicted a Messiah who suffers by taking upon himself the sins and guilt of us all, making reparation for us.

We don’t have a comprehensive answer to suffering. But Christians believe that we do have a God who suffered for us, and suffers with us even now. That fact doesn’t solve the problem. But it does situate suffering inside a circle of meaning, which helps to provide us with some strength and the comfort of God’s solidarity with us. Anyone who suffers anything that Christ suffered — violence, grief, cruelty, humiliation, fear, sadness, and all the rest of it — can know that their suffering isn’t done alone, for God suffers with them in love and companionship. He shares our suffering — just as when we suffer, we share in the sufferings of Christ. And we know that even though Christ suffered, his suffering gave way to the Resurrection, which meant that suffering didn’t have the final word. That is God’s promise to us.

The Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, is a marble picture of suffering.

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà

Saint Mary the Blessed Mother cradles her recently scourged, abused, pierced, and murdered Son. We don’t know how much she knew about what was going to happen afterward; we don’t know if she had any sense of his upcoming victory in the Resurrection and Ascension to God. It seems unlikely, given the intense surprise and confusion of Jesus’ disciples over the Resurrection. But all we know is that her suffering at this moment must have been unimaginable. Parents suffer along with their children at even minor problems and injustices. Here Mary suffers the worst pain a parent can ever suffer: living through the death of their child. And, it can be argued, the worst kind of death: death that involved intense pain and abuse before it finally claimed the body that had been pushed to its limit. She, too, knows suffering. And she, too, wants us to know that suffering is not the end, just as it was not the end for her or for her Son. Here is an excerpt from the fourth and final oracle of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, which Christians believe foretells Jesus:

“He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain/ Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem./ Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured,/ We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,/ But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity,/ He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we are healed./ We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way;/ But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all./…Because of his anguish he shall see the light; because of his knowledge he shall be content;/ My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear./ Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,/ Because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors,/ Bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:3-6, 11-12)

It turned out, according to Christian faith, that this Servant who suffered for us and with us was none other than a Messiah who embodied both full God and full humanity in one Person. Suffering will exist as long as this world endures. But as long as it does, we can look to the Cross of the Suffering Servant and know that even though we don’t have all the answers, our suffering is shared. And then we can look at Jesus’ empty tomb and know that suffering doesn’t have the final word.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

When Home is 93 Billion Light Years Around

In 2004, the Hubble space telescope completed a picture it had been taking for about four months. The result was what we now know as Hubble Deep Field. (To see this image, simply Google those words and it will be the top hit.) In the picture, seemingly countless separate galaxies are everything you see. To be specific: ten thousand of them, all inhabiting a point in space that to our naked eye is the size of a pencil tip. The fateful image, which altered the way we visualize the universe, came to be after astronomers decided to point Hubble at a tiny, seemingly empty dot in space — black, nothing discernible, totally unremarkable. Just to see what was there.

There is no other image that more fully impresses upon us — or allows us better to imagine — the scale of the universe. Ten thousand galaxies in the area of a pencil tip, including some that are so far away they appear as a bright red, cause us to think about who we are and who God is. Red shift, the phenomenon that causes an object to appear red when it is moving away from us at high speed (this is considered the Doppler effect of light), helped astronomers to calculate that a few of these galaxies were around 12 billion light years away from us. This, of course, means that the light that has traveled to us from those galaxies, allowing us to see them, has been traveling for 12 billion years. So we are only permitted to view those galaxies as they would have been 12 billion years ago; incidentally, this is the only way we know of to “look back in time.” And there is no way for us to know what those same galaxies might look like right now, provided they still exist.

But those 12 billion years mean that those particular galaxies are nearly as old as the universe itself. Astronomers quite accidentally stumbled upon the age of the universe when they noticed strange background microwave radiation unevenly distributed throughout space at a temperature of three degrees above absolute zero. The astronomers realized that this radiation was in fact the “afterglow” or “echo” of the Big Bang. The existence and character of the background radiation allowed them to calculate the age of our universe at close to 14 billion years. 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened. To put things in a little more perspective, the star that we call our Sun is somewhere between five and six billion years old.

To this point, astronomers have actually discovered a staggering 100 billion galaxies, and in each of those galaxies burns 100 billion stars like the Sun. The number of planets encircling 100 billion times 100 billion (10 septillion) stars is incalculable. As for the massive scale of the larger universe in which all these galaxies reside, our observable universe runs 93 billion light years in circumference.

In the ancient world, peoples of many different nations (ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, the many small Canaanite nations, Israel, Greece, etc.) believed the gods lived in the Heavens. But they also believed that those gods were present in their temples and shrines; inhabiting more than one location simultaneously was not impossible for a deity, and temples were typically thought of as microcosmic sacred spaces that represented a connection between Heaven and Earth. Though this was widely true in many ancient cultures, in the case of Israel it is illustrated nicely in several biblical texts, perhaps most notably Isaiah 6. In this chapter, Isaiah witnesses the inside of Yahweh’s Temple, which is filled merely with the bottom hem of Yahweh’s robes as he sits on his throne. The massive figure of God extends upward through the Temple into the Heavens, where serpentine, winged flaming seraphim hover near him (the Hebrew word saraph means “to burn”).

People also gravitated toward statues and figurines of the divine, some of which could be kept in people’s houses and/or in small shrines as part of a kind of local or in-home worship. No figurines of Yahweh have been discovered — probably due to the aniconic emphasis involved with his worship — but we have found figurines of Baal, for example, and many other deities across the ancient Near East. The famous ancient Israelite “pillar figurines” found inside homes could also be meant to represent a goddess(es) of fertility, though this is not certain. My purpose in mentioning these things is to point out that people have tended always to identify God or gods as having some connection with and even some location on Earth, even in tandem with the awareness that the full home of God or gods transcended Earth into the Heavens. We have still always identified God as close to us somehow, transcendent but also immanent.

With the knowledge of the cosmos that we have today, that of a place so vast and complicated that it eludes our comprehension utterly, some of us think it time to leave behind these ancient conceptions. People understandably think that it is now ill-informed and grossly arrogant to continue thinking of ourselves as anything special, as anything on which God would spend much time. Our planet is already a tiny speck even in our own galaxy the Milky Way, and we orbit one fairly standard star amidst 100 billion such stars just in the Milky Way alone. Even leaving it at that is enough to cause us to look at ourselves a bit askance. Add consideration of what lies beyond our own galaxy — 100 billion other galaxies — and to think of ourselves as anything to attract God’s attention becomes preposterous, laughable, hubristic, or just blindly stubborn. Who are we, after all?

I understand such thoughts, and in a positive way, they are a sign of a very welcome humility after so many centuries of disproportionate human pride. But my approach is somewhat different. I do think it ridiculous to imagine that we are the only intelligent life in this vast universe; but I do not consider the certain abundance of that life to be evidence of our intrinsic insignificance. Nor do I consider the smallness of our Earth within this 93 billion-light-year-round universe to be evidence of our insignificance. If our species is small and is one among potential millions, then by extension, each and every one of those other species is also one among millions. Such species are not intrinsically more “important” than we are simply by virtue of their being not-us. The same is true for our planet, a “pale blue dot” that with distance may indeed appear as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Carl Sagan), and eventually disappear into imperceptibility. For the same is true also of each planet orbiting any of the 10 septillion stars in the universe.

Knowledge of “our place in the universe” is a necessary corrective for exaggerated egos, and, it is to be hoped, a wondrous impetus for us to spend some time appreciating the Creator of this universe. But it is not a sentence of futility, of denigration, of lack of worth. To say that it is so would be to pronounce the same sentence on every single one of those potential millions out there beyond our galactic neighborhood. A precious thing is not any the less precious for being in the company of other precious things, any more than a single human could be deemed not precious because there are 6 billion such humans. I am not daunted in thinking of the certain abundance of life in God’s universe; I am oddly reassured and encouraged.

This is our home, as much as it is the home of 100 billion other galaxies. Even when home is 93 billion light years around, one member of the family is not any the less beloved to the Head of Household.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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**Much of the information regarding astronomy in this post is courtesy of PBS’ “Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space.”