The Power of Mystery
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, December 24, 2021
There are estimated to be 10s of billions of galaxies in our solar system. 100 billion stars are thought to inhabit each galaxy. 200 billion trillion stars are thought to be in the universe. It is estimated that 100 billion stars are in our galaxy alone. And planet earth is an insignificant ball of dust in a small solar system in the Milky Way galaxy located in one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way (called the Orion Arm) which lies about two-thirds of the way out from the center of the Galaxy. How many universes? We aren’t even sure of that. Science is expanding our minds to the nearly unlimited possibilities of the mystery of the cosmos.
And we have a faith built upon a story of the birth of a Child to a Virgin in a cave in Bethlehem whom we believe to be God Incarnate. I think it is necessary begin to see this story and our faith in the light of expanding knowledge. We cannot reasonably live in a Ptolemaic universe with Earth as the center of the circling cosmos and humanity as the center of everything that exists. It just isn’t so.
The cosmos is a mystery. Everything is at its core. The difference between believers and scientists generally speaking is that scientists are comfortable with unanswered questions while believers more often than not demand absolute certainty. If that is our stance, then there is no room for mystery. Without the mystical Christianity either becomes “a political ideology or a mindless fundamentalism.” (Alan Watts)
Let’s leave those questions behind. Contemplate them if you will while you walk under the stars.
Tonight we are faced with a mystery – that of the Incarnation of the Son of God. In the light of this we are mere children intellectually. We do not, we cannot understand this. And yet we believe that God has revealed it to us in this way. Here I will quote once again from Alan Watts’ book BEHOLD THE SPIRIT.
“To get an abstract, universal or spiritual truth into the understanding of a child one must make it concrete, and the best way to do so is to illustrate it with a story. Because God intends the gift of union and its realization for all humanity, and not merely an esoteric elite, he therefore embodies the gift in a story, a mythos, which is acted out in real life – in Palestine under the governorship of Pontius Pilate. Universal realities are hard to perceive because of the vastness of their extent: to be brought to our attention they must be localized. The air is all around us, but we do not notice it until the wind blows.”
There is a channel on YouTube where villagers from places like Pakistan and India are introduced to things we take for granted. Like opera, pizza Ferrero Roche and farm machinery and then they are asked for their response. Sometimes it is funny, sometimes poignant and almost always interesting.
In the video I saw recently the subject was, “Why is Christmas Celebrated”? The panel consisted of two young men, an slightly older gentleman and an old man to whom the others gave great respect and deference, all from a village in India. They were simple and humble people. Not one of them had a clue except that Christians celebrated it solemnly and it is a very important festival for what each one charitably called “our Christian brothers and sisters.”
The moderator then played a video narrated by some Christians who told the story of Christmas as it appears in St. Matthew’s Gospel. The graphics and music were professional. The atmosphere was, to put it mildly, kind of cosmic with beautiful pictures of the heavens, glittering depictions of angels where appropriate, glowing images of the Holy Family in the cave with animals, shepherds and Wise Men with soft electronic music swelling in and out. The narrators were average church-going folks of varying ethnicities.
It was interesting to watch the faces of the villagers. They were mesmerized. Each miraculous moment and every stirring word from the text left them speechless. Often they lifted their hands in praise to God and uttered words like “amazing”, “wonderful,” and the like, especially the old man who could barely contain his emotion. At the end the older young man said, “I am trembling all over.” One of the younger men said, “From now on I too will celebrate this Great Festival.” The old man, overcome with inspiration, grabbed a drum and to the percussive sound began to sing, “O, God, we are your servants.” The others joined in and the video ended. Perfect praise I would say.
I confess that I became inspired myself, not only with the retelling of the story, but with the simple, childlike responses of these four beautiful Hindu villagers who for the first time had had an encounter with Christ. Stories are powerful tools.
Instead of facts, we are given stories and parables to challenge our most cherished beliefs and inspire us to think more deeply, to entertain our doubts, to search, to wonder. The stories are not boxes or prisons for our minds, they are more like launching pads from which we are invited to explore the hidden truths they contain. There is where we face the truth, when our minds are halted in their incessant internal dialogues and we find ourselves standing in a quiet place awestruck to contemplate God and reality as it is, not as we think it is. That is to commune with the Truth, rather than my truth.