Do you ever look up at the stars in the winter sky and marvel at the wondrous nature of the universe? I have stepped out on several cold, clear nights, and the striking brilliance of the stars never fails to amaze me. After participating in the (virtual) service commemorating Blessed Absalom Jones today, I have been marveling at God’s call to holiness, for humanity in all our diversity, and nature of our connection with divine creation which is much larger than Earth.
Physicists Fred Hoyle and William Fowler published a scholarly paper in 1957, providing evidence that nearly all the elements are derived from nuclear reactions in celestial bodies millions of years ago. Carl Sagan summarized this in 1973 in the journal Cosmos: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Astrophysicists today are certain that there is molecular evidence of the cosmic origin of life. Studying trace elements in the molecular structure of water, scientists have learned that half the water on earth, including the water in our bodies, is older than our solar system. Human beings are about 93% stardust. Imagine that. We are celestial beings.
Does it comfort or interest you that science confirms what our faith teaches us? Our evolutionary biology intersects with astrophysics and religion. The DNA which identifies us reveals our common origin: human genetic material is 99.9% identical from person to person. The elements which comprise our DNA have their origin in the stars. We are all the children of God and we belong to the heavens. This is our true identity.
It is surprising that we spend so much time laboring to distinguish ourselves from one another. At best this is wrong-headed and wasteful. We are kindred to one another on the elemental level and spiritual level.
We end the season of Epiphany with Mark’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus. Up on an unnamed mountain in Galilee (possibly Mt Hermon or Tabor), praying with three disciples, Jesus begins to shine with a blinding light. He speaks with Elijah and Moses, the two greatest prophets of Israel. It is clear that Jesus is the beloved Son, the Christ. Jesus is not changed. Instead, he is revealed for who is really is. This is a real alleluia moment, in which a blinding light and a voice from the clouds reveal the identity and powerful love of Jesus.
Especially as we grow near to Lent, it is really helpful for us as friends and followers of Jesus to remember that transfiguration is a revealing of one’s true nature, instead of a change or transformation. All real spiritual work is about remembering what our true identity is. Our identity is not rooted in our capacity to sin and is not determined solely by our race, or ethnicity, or orientation, or class. We are human, in all our amazing and spectacular diversity, deeply loved, and part of the creation that God called good.
Frank Capra called humanity “a divine mingle-mangle of guts and stardust.” We are holy. For a Christian, our identity is marked by our baptism: through the pouring of blessed water and anointing with holy oil, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. By our baptism, the stardust of our lives is not changed, it is revealed as sacred, connected to the very person of God, the Eternal One. All the good we do, all the love and compassion we have for others, has its source in Jesus Christ, who is present and active within us. We embody divine Love, which has its source in Christ (cf. Brother Mark Brown, SSJE).
It is fairly challenging to remember this as we make our way in the world. And it is foundationally true.
After a year of Coronatide, we want to sing our alleluias, to remind us that the real love and power of God can transform the grimness of human life into rejoicing. And, sadly, we cannot cling to the alleluias forever, because Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. We silence the alleluias for a season, because we need to move forward, through Lent and toward the new life of Easter.
Jesus does not allow Peter to linger in the alleluias. There will be no shrines or tents, no staying up on the mountain, only a long journey into Jerusalem. In the next section of this gospel, Jesus reveals to his followers that he must suffer and die. Although it contains another foundational truth – life is often marked by undeserved suffering – this is a difficult and unwelcome teaching. Jesus moves forward into the rest of his ministry, and he brings his disciples with him. In Jesus’ eyes, it is not enough that his followers linger in the good feeling of the love that God has for them. They must share that love with the world in its gritty and grim reality.
We are each on our own sort of long journey to Jerusalem, guided by the light of Christ. It is unlikely that many of us will receive blinding visions or hear celestial voices. We cannot know for certain how our personal or professional lives will unfold. On an average day, we struggle to predict the weather accurately! What we do know is that we are beloved by God, who has marked us as divine children. What we do know is that God is willing to travel with us, guiding us if we are willing to listen and to see. What we do know is that God will give us what we need to sustain our souls, if we are willing to accept that gift.
Remember that our origin is literally heavenly. We are stardust. We are kindred. We are part of the Light who guides us. We don’t need to look for that chariot to take us to heaven. We have already received a share of the Holy Spirit. May we bring heaven with us wherever we go.
Elizabeth Howell. Humans Really Are Made of Stardust, and a New Study Proves It. January 10, 2017. https://www.space.com/35276-humans-made-of-stardust-galaxy-life-elements.html
National Institute of Health. “Genomics Versus Genetics.” https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/fact-sheets/Genetics-vs-Genomics