A modern myth asserts that our ancestors derived their sense of importance from the belief that they stood at the “center” of the universe. But then along came brave scientists like Copernicus and Galileo who challenged that view by arguing the earth revolves around the sun. This especially upset tradition-bound religious leaders because, according to the myth, it meant the universe was not “human-centered.” As science marched on, astronomers discovered that our sun is just an average star, one of a hundred billion stars in a single galaxy, which is itself one of a hundred billion galaxies in a large, very old universe. Thus, unlike the medievals we know how insignificant we are.
I call this a myth because it is untrue in two basic ways. First, while ancient peoples did not have telescopes and other instruments to measure the universe, they knew it was incalculably immense. For example in today's Old Testament reading we hear God promise Abraham that his descendants will be “as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.” (Gen 22:17) Ptolemy's Almagest (a standard university textbook in the Middle Ages) contains 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) Like us they recognized the earth as a speck of dust when compared to the immensity beyond.
Second – and most important – they did not consider the “center” a privileged position. Rather, as one writer put it, “the sublunar domain was the mutable, corruptible, base and heavy portion of the cosmos.”* The earth was not so much the “center” as the “bottom” of the universe. Dante’s Divine Comedy immortalized this vision. The saints and angels dwell with God in the outer spheres, but at the very center one finds Satan frozen in ice. It is false to say that pre-Copernicans gave the earth and humans the position of highest esteem, while Copernicus relegated us to an insignificant backwater. We would speak more accurately by saying that both perspectives underscore our small, fragile position and that both envision something more awesome above or beyond our planet.**
We see that perspective in today’s Gospel. Jesus takes his intimate disciples “up a high mountain.” (Mk 9:2) Things are certainly better there because they glimpse Jesus’ magnificence. Peter, always given to enthusiastic outbursts, wants to set up camp. But Jesus indicates some serious business down below which must happen before he “rises.”
I will never forget the first time I climbed a mountain. On a clear, summer day, Fr. Boyle led some high students up Mount Pilchuck – a small mountain north of Seattle. From the summit we could see Everett, Camano and even Whidbey Island spread before us like a map. I felt like an ant suddenly transported above my scurrying fellows. It was glorious, yet humbling.
What I experienced that afternoon was perhaps a tiny bit like Peter, James and John – taken for a moment above the conflicts and burdens of this world. It cannot last. A certain “heaviness” pulls us back down. We must pass through it in order to rise with Jesus.
*See Jay W. Richard's review of End of an Age in Touchstone Magazine. (March 2003)
**The materialist, like us, often feels a stirring when he looks at the night sky, but usually does not ask what the feeling means. Consider the famous scene in Roots when Kunta Kinte holds his child up toward the sky and says, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself!” Is he saying that a bunch of particles in motion, because of their enormous quantity, are greater than his daughter? That would be like saying a tree, because of its size, is greater than a man. It seems to me that Kunta Kinte was too shrewd to be impressed by mere size or quantity - and that what he is telling her is that the mysterious vastness points toward a Creator.
From Archives (Year B homilies for 2nd Sunday of Lent):
Homilies for Second Sunday of Lent ("Transfiguration Sunday")
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Iraq's Compliance Must Be Pursued Through U.N., Says Cardinal Laghi
Reflections and Resources on the Crisis with Iraq
Mel Gibson's Great Passion
Article on the Estrada Filibuster
40 Days for Life (Everett, WA)
Q&A about Planned Parenthood
(A child in Peru who needs your help)
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