Sometimes you hear it asserted that in the past people could believe in God because they did not realize how huge the universe is. However, although they did not have the same knowledge as modern astronomers, they did know it was very immense. The Bible, for example, says that Abraham's descendents would be "numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore." (Gen 22:17) In Ptolemy's Almagest (a standard university textbook in the Middle Ages) we find the following statement: "The earth in relation to the distance of the fixed stars has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point." (Almagest, bk. I, ch. v)
Our forebears knew the universe was incalulably vast, but they also recognized somthing greater. As today's first reading states:
In the following verse, the author draws an awesome conclusion: If God created all things that exist, will he not have compassion on his creatures? The immensity of the universe signifies God's unlimited mercy.
Such mercy is hard to conceive. Sometimes people tell me they have done things they could never confess. This is not a case of "Catholic guilt." Evangelical Protestants, even non-believers, have told me they doubt they will be forgiven for what they have done. In today's Gospel we meet a man carrying a similar burden of despair.
Zacchaeus really was despicable. He had betrayed his fellow countrymen by taking a job gathering tribute for the Romans. He used his position to lord it over others and to gouge what he could from them. Honest Jews hated the little runt - and with good reason. That Jesus would embrace him and then have dinner in his home was repulsive in a way you and I can barely imagine.
Mother Angelica tells about a woman whose husband had made her life miserable. At the end he had a change of heart. But the woman was not so happy about it. "The rat got baptized on his death bed," she told Mother Angelica. People felt something similar about Zacchaeus, at least until he began talking about paying back what he had robbed.
Carl Sagan marvelled at the billions and billions of galaxies. But there is something more immense and marvellous than the night sky: the divine mercy. Perhaps the vastness of the universe exists only to give us some token of it.
When people tell me they could never confess their sins to priest, I tell them not to worry. Begin with a full, direct admission to God. Allow his ocean of mercy to flow over you. Confession and reparation will follow as it did for Zacchaeus.
From Archives (31st Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (MP3)
Evidence for God's Existence from Modern Physics (MP3 Audio File)
Report on Earthquake Relief to Sacuaya (October 22, 2001)
Bulletin (Excommunicating Pro-Abortion Politicians, Archbishop's Respect Life Statement)
Darwin's Dangerous Idea (reflection on PBS' Evolution Program)
Pictures from Peru
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Resources for Geography of Faith
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru