Last night was mid-year graduation at Gettysburg College. It was the first time I had attended, and it was a really lovely ceremony. The graduates were recognized, and as each one came across the stage, we heard just a little about them. There were only 30 or so students, so the ceremony had a very intimate feel, even though the ballroom was full of family and friends celebrating them.
For me, however, the best part of the service was the faculty address, given by astrophysicist Jacquelynne Milingo. She is a brilliant, dynamic person, and the key message of her address was “maintain a sense of perspective.” Then, she described beautifully [as only an astrophysicist can] what that “perspective” means to a human being in the scope of the cosmos. So, for example:
- “There are more starts in our universe than grains of sand on all of earth’s beaches.”
- “We live in a galaxy that is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.”
And then she ran down the cosmic calendar year, where “all of human history–agriculture, the alphabet, religion, science, every poem, every song, every discovery and technological invention, every birth, every death, every triumph, and every failure of the human race–would span the last 30 seconds of December 31st.” On that scale, the average human life span is less than .2 second.
And while that might seem to lead to nihilistic thinking, Dr. Milingo drew a different conclusion. Here is what she said:
“Astronomers understand very well how extraordinary and stunning our existence is. How connected all of us are to each other and this incredible universe. Did you know that the iron in your blood, the blood that courses through your veins, came from a supernova explosion that occurred before our sun was formed? Did you know that the oxygen in your lungs came from nuclear reactions in stars that lived and died before our solar system was formed?…..Everyone on this pale blue dot (as Carl Sagan called it) is part of a unique community. We have much more in common than what sets us apart.”
This wasn’t an Advent or Christmas sermon, obviously, but frankly, it could have been. The way that Dr. Milingo teased out the multifaceted and vibrant connections that bind this entire cosmos together–even over time and space–is to me, a Christian, such a beautiful and powerful articulation of what I celebrate in the incarnation: a God who bound up Godself with the very matter of the cosmos–becoming human, becoming flesh, becoming stardust, and weaving together the whole universe in bonds of love.
I want to be clear that this Dr. Milingo was not articulating a religious message–I’m not trying to put words in her mouth. But again, as a Christian, I want to say that one of the things I love about listening to scientists talk about the world from so many different vantage points is not only all I learn from them, but also the ways in which scientific knowledge helps me better understanding and articulate the relationship between God and the world, and the way I see God’s active and loving presence in and among us.
God doesn’t just love some people; God loves all people. God doesn’t just love all people; God loves the whole world–animals, plants, mountains, oceans. God doesn’t just love the whole world; God loves the whole cosmos–and there is not one molecule in it that is outside the care and presence of God. That’s how I understand the incarnation. Extraordinary and stunning indeed.