In reading the headlines in the last few days, one stood out for me. It probably isn’t one you’d expect. It was yesterday’s headline on CBC, “Mars Shine Bright Next Ten Days.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an amateur astronomer, but I love all things celestial. Friday night, later in the evening between 10:00 and 11:00 especially, the Moon and Mars were in a conjunction. In fact, the moon was directly below Mars and it was as if the two were tracking across the Southeastern sky together. Last night I watched first Mars, and then the Moon, rise, hoping to see the same conjunction; but if it occurred, I had already gone to bed.
These past few days have been lovely and pretty good for looking at the night sky; that’s the beauty of shorter days—we have longer nights to observe the stars and the planets. Earlier this summer, beginning in the Spring, Jupiter and Saturn were visible in the South and Southwestern skies. They still are, but they are fading, especially Saturn. Mars is in the ascendancy and will be bright for these October days; in fact, it is the brightest and closest it’s been since 2003 and is as close as it will be for some years to come.
But why did this headline capture my attention? Because things to do with the planets and the stars bring me, at least, some joy, a deep sense of awe, and a deep reverence. It also helps me to think, “Ok. This is going on in my life or in the life of the world. But there’s the moon and the Big Dipper, the North Star and Betelgeuse. There’s Mars on the rise and the full moon. All is well. Everything is where it should be.” And the anxiety eases. I’m filled with a deep sense of perspective of my place in the world and that I’m not alone. Funny that, looking up at the stars and thinking I’m not alone!
We live an age where there is anxiety about a lot of things—COVID-19, relationships, health, how to overcome systemic racism, how to get beyond the fear of living in a complex world, how do I behave in this store or that store, when can I come back to church or have a meal with my friends, how to live in peace and harmony, how to overcome the potential for climate catastrophe to name a few anxieties. While it is tempting to retreat into individualism and isolation during the COVID pandemic as a way of coping, or retreating into news watching and obsessing on what is happening in the world, we are learning that reaching out leads us away from isolation and fear to a greater sense of being part of the Great Life. And doing things each day that cultivates a sense of mystery, joy, perspective, or peace can go a long way to mitigating our anxiety.
If we can speak honestly about what we are feeling—to health care professionals, to a friend, to a neighbour, to someone on the other side of the globe via Zoom or Facetime or some other online platform, or to people like me in the spiritual vocation—it can make a huge difference to know that we are not alone, that we are part of a compassionate and caring larger global family.
If we can look up every now and then and reorient ourselves to the sun or the moon or the stars or to the Greater Love that exists in the universe, all well and good. That leads us to be more attentive, more open, less anxious and more responsive to the needs of the world and our neighbours.
Anxiety is nothing new. Perhaps our version of it is new in the 21st century. But each age has experienced anxiety. The age in which Jesus ministered was an anxious age. Rebellion was in the air in ancient Israel. The Romans, while they brought order and rule, did so with a harsh brutality. In the area where Jesus lived—the Galilee—people were poor, many having been forced off their ancestral lands by greedy landowners wanting more. There were observances to observe, taxes to pay, work to be found, and all of it done with an occupying army. Anxious times.
And to compound the anxiety, at least for Jesus’ friends and followers, they had all gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus had entered Jerusalem in a parade that the Romans governors wouldn’t have liked and, at least according to Matthew, began to teach with parables and stories, what the Kin-Dom of God was really all about.
At the beginning of chapter 21 of Matthew, the chapter out of which Jean read for us today, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey as a parody of what a conquering leader would ride. And then Jesus immediately drove out the moneychangers and declared that God’s house should be a house of prayer not a den of thieves. Pretty provocative stuff. And then there’s the parable of the barren fig tree, the question about Jesus’ authority, the parable of the 2 sons and then our parable of the tenants of the vineyard. All of these parables ratcheted up the anxiety of those in Jesus’ camp and yet Jesus, with his eye on the race, perhaps, to use Paul’s metaphor, kept his anxiety low.
And for Paul, his words in Philippians, his most personal words about himself, also addressed the anxiety of being in a new church in a new religion, all of which was “a work in progress.” They were anxious; Paul was anxious. There was conflict as others followed Paul in many of the places he went and preached a Jewish brand of Christianity that was challenging and more about the individual. Paul talked about persevering and overcoming the division among them, and running the race with hope and love.
So, we stay the course, we continue to run the race with all our anxieties. But we run the race together. That was Paul’s teaching, that we are in this together. Paul taught humility, too, cultivating a sense of awe, a freedom derived from the Spirit of Christ that gives life, and unity in Christ.
Jesus’ own non-violent ministry, again and again, pointed to the fact that the great tool of empires—divide and conquer—doesn’t work when people stand together. It works if people buy into their anxiety and slip into individualism and loneliness. Together, all things shall be well.
Julian of Norwich’s quote that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” is often quoted without the bigger context. In the course of her suffering and the suffering of the people around her, Julian became convinced through her own work of cultivating Spirit, hope, awe and love, that Christ is with us in all we face, leading us together to confront our fears and to trust in the love of God we experience in one another; I would add, that this is also enhanced by looking up at the night sky and being reminded that we are not alone. God’s creative spark is alive, driving us forward on the race for life to be whole, just, peace-filled, compassionate, and loving for all human beings and for all that has life! That’s what today is all about, World-wide communion Sunday—that we are part of something larger. So, take time to reach out, to be reminded that we are not alone, and take time to look up!