Awe and What Comes After
I had the pleasure of worshipping with the congregation of Chester Cathedral on the last Sunday in Epiphany. The gospel reading was the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9). Chester has been hosting Gaia, a 6m globe with a rotating realistic image of the Earth from space, supported by a Scientists in Congregations grant. Here is the sermon I shared. (You can also watch and listen to the whole service here. Sermon at 31:30-43:00.)
Image credit: Lucas Mix, February 2023
I love the Gaia installation. It speaks to people, albeit in different ways. For me, it brings me face to face with the scope of the world: the fundamental interconnectedness of life on Earth, the dynamic interactions of air and water, rock and life. The planet lives and breathes, and my own life is but a fraction of that, much as my own body is only a fraction of the Body of Christ. I am because I am related. I am a part, with God’s breath moving in and out of me with every breath I take. It is precisely here that my love of science and my love of theology overlap. They are two ways of seeing the world, two ways of understanding relationships, two ways of experiencing the transcendent.
When I look at Gaia, I feel awe. I am humbled but also comforted by the life around me. That life upholds me. I am moved. Indeed, I can be moved because of the ties that bind me to others, the ties of family, friendship, and faith: the linkages forged with neighbour and nature by the common food we eat, the common air we breathe, and the life we share. Like astronauts who look down on the thin, distant biosphere, I recognize how fragile it all is and how important my place is and how significant my actions can be. I feel awe.
People frequently see this similarity between faith and science: awe, the experience of the transcendent, the humility and curiosity they can inspire, the encounter with the really real that is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. It is more than we knew and better than we could have hoped and always worth a second look. And a third. This is the world that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
But here I want to pause a bit. Awe is good. Awe is wonderful, but it may not be enough. I want to raise two cautions about awe, reasons why we should not stop, as the disciples longed to do, and build a temple to it.
In today’s Gospel, God breaks into the world with a vision of light. God also – and I just noticed this this week – Interrupts Peter while he’s talking. “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” (Matthew 17:5) Peter’s awe and reverence reflect a good instinct. Pay attention. But don’t stop. Don’t get caught up in the last moment. Prepare for the next.
There are, I think, two kinds of awe. For want of fancy theological and psychological lingo, let us simply call them the awful and the awesome. Basically, the same sentiment – filled with awe – but with radically different consequences.
The awful experience of transcendence fills us with dread and despair. That which we see is so much greater than we are that it threatens to overwhelm us, to change us without our will or consent. The awful diminishes and disempowers.
There is also an awesome experience of transcendence. It inspires us. We recognize our best selves in the transcendent and the transcendent in our selves. The awesome enlightens and empowers. In the words of Psalm 36, “in your light we see light.” Or, in the words of CS Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” (from “Is Theology Poetry?)
Anglicans have long used science to help us see the world, to understand ourselves, and to appreciate the Lord who made heaven and earth. Science and theology done well involve exactly this kind of awe: the awesome; the light which enlightens, the life which enlivens, and the power which empowers. Science and theology done well pull us out of ourselves and into God’s world. They allow us to participate in the coming kingdom of heaven. They show us what we can be.
Peter and James and John saw something that day. They saw the glory as of the only begotten of God. But, as amazing as that was, it was not yet complete. They needed to see more. They needed to see the passion so as not to be caught in the moment. They needed to be pulled ahead into the kingdom.
As we prepare for Lent, I challenge you to ask about the experiences of awe in your life. When do you look up in awe? Or perhaps down, or inward, or outward? When do you have a chance to experience the transcendent? It may be in church or in nature or in a laboratory. It might be in reading history or imagining the future. It can be found in the eyes of a friend or the words of a stranger. When do you feel awe? And what does it enable you to do?
Perhaps Gaia inspires you to be more conscious of waste and pollution. Perhaps it brings home the togetherness of Earth and the reality of climate change. Perhaps it reminds you how arbitrary national boundaries are. Perhaps the shared bread and wine of Christian worship remind you of God’s immanence, or of the holy hidden within everyday food, or the common life we all share: one bread, one body.
Nurture those experiences. Treasure them and seek them out. It is not just God who transforms the world, it is us with the power of God. I quoted a line from Ephesians earlier, but it was not quite complete. “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
We are powerful because we are not alone, not independent. We are powerful because of this experience of transcendence, this awesome experience of Christ. That is my rubric for judging everything in life. Is this a light that enlightens, a life that enlivens, a power that empowers? Have I found something that makes me more than I was? Have I done something that made someone else more than they were?
The light that enlightens is a light we can share. May you find that light in your heart this Lent. May you find that shines out from you to enlighten the world.
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