Sunday Worship for Epiphany from the Vatican Space Observatory
This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.
It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.
Originally broadcast: 6th January 2008
Atmos of night time on palace roof
A very warm welcome on this bitterly cold night – from the roof of the Pope’s summer palace just outside Rome! We’ve come here to celebrate Epiphany - the revelation of Christ, the Light of the World, to all the peoples. Epiphany marks the completion of the Christmas season: the end of God’s journey – which has brought Christ into the world.
Our service today is different. It’s different because we’re starting it here at night, a sort of vigil, and it’s not in a church but outside on the roof of Castle Gandolfo, a papal residence since the end of the 16th century. Now it’s not because we’ve lost our way but because like the Magi, the three wise men, we’ve followed the stars. Castel Gandolfo is home to the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world and for over 400 years its telescopes have been tracking the movement of the stars and planets, reading, in this vast and ever expanding text of creation, something of our origins and the journey of the whole cosmos. It’s clear that here, at the Vatican observatory, there’s no contradiction between faith and science.
You revealed your Son to the nations
By the guidance of a star.
Lead us to the glory of heaven
By the light of faith
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit
One God for ever and ever. Amen.
MUSIC - As with gladness men of old
CD – The Complete English Hymnal Volume 14 PRCD 714
Many people are surprised to learn that the Vatican funds research into astronomy. In fact it has two observatories; the second has its home high in the mountains in the Arizona desert. But even here, on this crisp winter’s night on the Pope’s roof, with the silhouette of the great domes housing the telescopes behind me, this ocean of stars above me is simply breathtaking – a glimpse into infinity. The Magi studied the stars; for them it was a science not a superstition. They represented a school of wisdom, of secret knowledge, access to which required considerable mathematical skill. They appear in Matthew’s Gospel as part of the convergence of history and wisdom around the birth of Christ. It’s as if history and wisdom have been on a long pilgrimage to this moment – the moment when all is ready and the two journeys – that of humanity and that of God finally converge in this newly born child of Mary.
Opening up the telescope dome for us Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit Brother who’s been a Vatican Astronomer for over 14 years.
TELESCOPE SEQUENCE WITH GUY
How extraordinary that the Magi – the wise men – should have so much confidence in their ability to recognise and interpret the sign of the Star that they are willing to risk all on a long journey. Science and faith are both journeys of searching. Whether by science or faith, reason is a common resource, but reason needs imagination for its vision is only finite. It needs experience and witness of those who have made the journey before us. In the end, we have to trust that vision and set out in hope. But it’s not a journey of disappointment because as the Magi knew, the message of the star was that he was already here.
The Magi do not belong to Israel and yet Christ has come for them as well. They, through their own wisdom, can recognise the meaning of the Christ star and know that their salvation too is at hand. The journey of wisdom and truth asks only that we journey with an open heart and mind, a sense of wonder and humility before vastness of the universe before us. And all the roads of wisdom and truth must come to him who is their source, to the place where we least expect him and in the company of those who, without learning and power have somehow got there before us.
This morning the story of the Wise Men’s journey in Matthew’s Gospel is in two parts. The first part is read by Farther Sabino Mafaeo a Physicist and Jesuit member at Castel Gandolfo
The Visit of the Magi
1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east[b] and have come to worship him."
3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ[c] was to be born. 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
6" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'[d]"
7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
MUSIC – 3 Kings (Rutter or Cornelius)
CD Christmas Star – the Cambridge Singers directed by John Rutter. CSCD 503
James III. (Walking whilst inside)
Whether we’re scientists or magi, poets or just ordinary people who catch the sky on a clear night, the stars captivate us: they can move us like the psalmist to exclaim in humble amazement, “The Heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.” (Ps.18) They are also a question to us – whether it’s the mystery of a light that reaches us though its source has or the limitless possibility of other worlds they open us to the possibility of knowledge that we can never exhaust and a mystery we can explore but never finally describe with an equation or a law. We stand, looking into a luminous darkness which summons us but always remains beyond our mind’s grasp. It puts to us the most basic of all questions – the same questions for the scientist, the poet, the believer and unbeliever alike: Where do you come from? Who are you? Where are you going?
(ATMOS OPENING AND GOING THROUGH DOOR ETC)
Inside the papal palace, here on the first floor study centre is a collection of over 1000 meteorites which belong to the Pope. Each stored in a carefully labelled plastic bag tucked inside a wooden drawer. Their curator is Vatican Astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno..
ATMOS GUY AND THE METEORITES
MUSIC – The Lamb – John Tavener
CD The Cambridge Singers Christmas Album
Trk 22 The Lamb – John Tavener CSCD 512
There is a sense in which knowing where we come from only intensifies the question of who we are. Our origins situate us in a history – a family history, a local history, the history of a nation or tribe and ultimate in a history of the cosmos itself. But to know that we are the product of these genes or this convergence of forces doesn’t close down the question because who we are is intimately bound up with where we’re going – with our dreams, our hopes and with our purpose. For the answer that question we need to look beyond facts, to another source of wisdom.
Our science needs faith because there are some questions where science comes to and end, some answers that it can’t give. Science can give us the facts we need, it can provide laws and theories and describe the world and maybe how better to understand and live in it. But it can’t tell us our purpose, the ‘who’ and the ‘whence’ of our life and its brief passing like the streaking light of a small meteor in the darkness of the a vast night. Only faith can tell us that the cosmos is not impersonal, its source and destiny is not some abstract mechanical law but the person of Jesus Christ. The Magi know that their knowledge needs the wisdom of faith; in the presence of the Christ child knowledge and wisdom will come to rest. They need study the heavens for a sign no longer for they will have found a light brighter than all the stars that shine. In the words of the Orthodox liturgy,
“Thy birth, O Christ our God, rose upon the world as the light of knowledge; for through it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Sunrise from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee.”
HOMILY – Guy Consolmagno
When the Magi came from the East, announcing the star to King Herod, why was he so surprised? If they could see the star in Persia or Babylon, why didn’t they see it in Jerusalem?
But then, when was the last time you looked at the stars?
Sure, I know, it can be cloudy this time of year. And it’s cold outside — a good excuse to stay indoors. If that weren’t enough, there’s all those city lights where we live. Our wonderful technology—which keeps us warm at night — also blinds us from seeing anything in the night-time sky. Thanks to light pollution, most people under the age of forty have never seen the Milky Way.
Astronomy and religion both remind us that the world is bigger than our day-to-day. Face it, though we’ve all learned that the world is round, in reality we all walk around in a world that looks flat to us, with me at the center and the most important bearing the distance from me to the refrigerator during a TV commercial. But you look at the stars and you can see for yourself a universe whose extent is measured in light-years. Science, which has measured those distances, hasn’t tamed our ancient wonder of the stars, but made us realize that those stars are even more remarkable than the ancients could have known.
And the sky overhead is not an impenetrable shield between us and outer space. Sometimes a rock falls from the asteroid belt. Most of us have never seen such an event, and the rationalists of the 18th century mocked such reports as the lies of superstitious peasants. But today our museums have small collections of such meteorites, and my science convinces me that they did not come from Earth. Such a fall is extremely rare over a human lifetime; over the lifetime of the planet, it happens all the time.
Our best theory for why King Herod didn’t know about the star of Bethlehem suggests that the star in the East was the rising sun, sitting among an array of planets that the astrologers believed signified the birth of a king. But the brightness of the sun meant the planets could not actually be seen; their positions could only be calculated, by astrologers. If they hadn’t believed in their astrology, they would never have known to make that calculation. Herod didn’t believe in astrology; the Jewish scripture specifically forbids astrology. And modern astronomers don’t believe in astrology anymore. We’ve learned that it usually doesn’t work. If it does, it’s a miracle.
But even if there had been a visible star rising over Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, would anyone have noticed it? Two months ago, a small but bright comet appeared in our northern sky; how many of us noticed it? Only the amateur astronomers, who knew the stars of the constellations; they were surprised at a new star sitting among them. The rest of us stayed indoors, watching TV.
Science prepares us to be surprised. Only by understanding the ordinary, can we appreciate the extraordinary. But we only see the extraordinary if we believe that it is there to be seen; and if we take the time to look. Sometimes an enormous amount of time; astronomers can spend years at the telescope looking for data that isn’t always there. You have to have faith that, sooner or later, you’ll see what you were looking for — or something better.
And everyone knows that science is based on reason; what they forget is that all logic must start with assumptions, axioms, truths that we can only take on faith.
Parallel to the paradox that our science is based on such belief, in turn you’ll find most religious faith is based on experience. But you have to pay attention — and sometimes it takes years — to catch that small, still voice in the night that prompts us to find our answers to those questions science can never answer: Why is there something instead of nothing? Where did I come from, where should I be going? What am I ultimately yearning for, and why do I have these yearnings?
Like the stars, these stirrings can be blotted out by too much television and city lights. Yet sometimes, if we pay attention, we can let the heavens touch us. And when we realize it, we experience an epiphany no different from that of the magi. We may see it in a comet among the stars; we may see it in a rock from the asteroid belt. We may see it in a child in a manger.
MUSIC – Christ be our Light – Bernadette Farrell
CD Christ be our Light – Bernadette Farrell
Trk 1 – Christ be our Light OCP 9917
There’s a beautiful image of the Magi, these travellers and seekers after God in Evelyn Waugh’s book, Helena. Helena, the mother of Constantine – on her own journey of faith – finally discovers at the place where she believes the Holy Family stayed for Christ’s birth. Kneeling by the spot where she believes Jesus to be born, she thinks of the Magi and their long journey. She thinks of them as the ‘late comers’ and so her prayer is for all the late-comers. In a sense it does not matter when we arrive or what route we take: Christ and his mother never grow weary waiting for us. Theirs is a home in which everyone is welcome.
And so for our prayers, joining us in the chapel here at Castel Gandolfo, are members of the Jesuit community who work here.
MUSIC – Adoramus Te Domine
CD – O Lord hear my prayer – the Songs of Taize KMCD 736
Lord, today you revealed your light and truth to the world. Grant that those who devote their gifts to science may use its discoveries for your glory and the service of all people.
Lord, your star accompanied the wise men on their journey and filled them with joy and hope. Whatever our journey, be our guide and our hope.
Lord, you were found not in a palace, but a manger. Help us to see you in all the unexpected places, especially in the faces of the poor, the homeless and exiled.
Lord, you are the wisdom that guides all peoples and nations. Teach us the ways of peace, justice and reconciliation that war, oppression and the destruction of your creation may cease.
The conclusion of the journey of the Wise Men from the Gospel is read by Juan Casanovas a solar astronomer:
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Magi found what they were seeking. In once sense their journey came to an end in when they knelt in adoration with all creation at the stable in Bethlehem. And yet, another journey was beginning. They went home, but ‘by another way.’
I wonder if in that journey Matthew hasn’t given us a clue to the journey that we all travel. It wasn’t the route they planned; it was a detour because they knew that Herod wished to destroy them and the child they had found. So, too, we have many detours from the path we had planned but like them we do not travel now as someone without knowing who we are, we know the gift we have received.
Science might teach us that we’re were created from cosmic dust, but because the creator of the stars has become one of us we don’t go back as dust, we go back another way – the way that leads to Him.
This great feast of the Epiphany celebrates the beginning of a new history and the journey that all peoples and all nations make to Christ, the one Star that guides us through the shadows and the darkness to a Glory that can never fade. In the words of the ancient Syriac liturgy for the blessing of the waters on the night of the Epiphany,
Do thou, now, O Lord, who hast brought us unto this hour,
Be among us, and in driving away from our souls the darkness of ignorance
Fill us with that light which is above the world, and guide us, so that we walk
Without fault to the wholly perfect and threefold light of the incomprehensible Trinity.
And may the Christ be with us now, and on all our journeys and when our pilgrimage is ended may we, like the wise men, find him who is our true treasure, happiness and peace.
And may almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
HYMN – The First Nowell
CD Christmas Carols from King’s College
CDM 7 63179 2
The People's Passion
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