Ordinary Holiness

We live in an age of science. Astronomy, biology, physics and the other sciences have been able to answer questions that were thought unanswerable just a few decades ago. After the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, astronomers announced that they had been able to see far enough out in space and, thus, far enough back in time, to see the echo of the big bang and the beginning of the universe.

Equally astounding on the other end of the size spectrum, just a few years ago, a working draft of the entire human genome sequence was announced. And already medical scientists have been able to find the causes of some syndromes and diseases and to predict a time in the not-too-distant future when cures will be brought about, not by drugs or surgery, but by repairing or replacing malformed or damaged genes.

We live in an age of science. We look to science to answer our questions, to solve our problems, to explain our world. And I, for one, am glad that we have come to look to science and not to magic or speculation to answer our questions about the natural world. We have all benefited from the answers that science can find and has found. Like many of you, I am still living and able to get around because of scientific advances like antibiotics and arthroscopic surgery.

And it turns out one of the most useful courses that I took when I was an undergraduate student in college was a course on the experimental or the scientific method. It was a course that encouraged skepticism about all hypotheses and claims of proof, a course that demanded "just the facts," but all the facts, and cautioned against drawing unjustified conclusions from insufficient evidence. That course, I'm sure, has made me less likely to be taken in by the various charlatans and snake oil salesmen out there.

It is the job of science, you see, to be skeptical of all explanations until all the facts are in. The job of science is to measure and quantify things and show us how they work. A rainbow, for instance, is not the gods painting the sky. It is light being prismatically reflected through water droplets. Science can tell us that.

Of course, our reliance on science has a cost. Mark Twain once wrote: "We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter."

Or as my romantic Uncle Arthur said one late summer night in 1969 after Neil Armstrong had set foot on the moon, "We'll never look at it in such wonder again."

It's ironic that in this age of science, religion and science seem to be at war in some minds. This is unfortunate. And I certainly don't want to add any ammunition to those who might thoughtlessly criticize the best way humanity has yet come up with knowing things about the physical world. Still, it is important to remember what science does and what it can't do. In a sense, the job of science is to remove the magic and the mystery from the world, to come to know what can be known about things through observation and measurement.

But as a good scientist will tell you, that's about all science can do. It can tell us how, but not--in the largest sense--why. For example, science can explain to a great degree how the world came to be and how you and I came to be part of it. It can uncover the early aftermath of the big bang and piece together eons of human evolutionary development until we get to you and me today. But science cannot tell us why the world came to be or why you and I are here, why there should be something instead of nothing.

Here's an example: Today is Valentines Day. Now science can explain why most men are attracted to women and vice versa. It's an evolutionary, biological, hard-wired need to preserve the species perhaps. Or it's hormones. Or it's a psychological predisposition. Or it's social or cultural training. Or it's some combination of those realities.

Science can explain sexual attraction. It can explain why a handsome young man and a beautiful, healthy woman of reproductive age seek each other out and court and reproduce. Science can explain attraction, but science can't explain love.

Science can't explain why, for example, forty years later--not as healthy, not as good-looking and far beyond reproductive age--that same man sits by the hospital bed of that same woman night after night holding her hand, praying that she survives cancer, willing--in a second--to change places with her, to die if that would mean that she might live.

Science can measure and study and explain the need of a species to reproduce itself and survive. But science can't explain love. And, yet, love is as real as reproduction.  It is as real as it is unexplainable. Down through the centuries, human love has remained a mystery--a holy mystery--that lies beneath what we can evaluate and measure and see.

What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration in today's Gospel reading was something like that, its seems to me. Peter and James and John had known Jesus well for a long time. And since they were willing to leave their livelihoods and follow him, they obviously thought highly of Jesus and of his teaching. They considered him to be a remarkable rabbi. They had recently even come to see Jesus as the promised messiah--the one God had chosen to lead Israel.

Still, to these followers, Jesus was a man, just a man--a singularly inspiring teacher, perhaps a great leader who might help his people kick the Romans out of power and take control of their own affairs again--but a human being to be sure.

Then, suddenly, on the mountain, for just a moment, they are able see beneath Jesus' ordinary humanity and find shining there the very presence, the very holiness, the very glory of God. It is revelation. It is mystery, which can be neither explained nor debunked. Like true love, it is a reality too deep to measure.

Indeed, the Biblical witness over and over again is that there is a hidden holiness which exists "in, with and under" ordinary things and ordinary people. Water, wine, bread--it is these ordinary things that God has chosen to make holy for us. A group of ordinary people gathered to sing and pray, to speak and listen, to eat and drink--an ordinary Sunday morning gathering of ordinary human beings, in the grace of God, becomes the very body of Christ, the incarnate One, in all its mystery and holiness.

The job of science is to remove the mystery from the world. The job of faith is to show us the holy mystery hiding everywhere.

You probably remember when, in the climatic scene of the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions pull back the curtain to reveal the "Magnificent Oz" to be a very ordinary human being. Rather than a powerful and terrible wizard, he is only an old man with a lot of technology at his disposal. That's science, debunking the pretense of the great wizard.

And, yet, you also remember that this pretender turned out, in fact, to be able to give each of the seekers exactly what he or she needed--courage, a heart, a brain, a home. That's faith, seeing the possibilities that lie beneath what seems ordinary.

Which brings us to Lent, which begins Wednesday. Someone--maybe St. Augustine--said that prayer is paying attention. That could be for us the work of Lent this year: to learn to pay attention. To pray that the Holy Spirit might open our eyes to the holiness that lies behind the ordinary around us and in us, to invite the Spirit to show us, as it did Peter and James and John, who Jesus really is and what he means to us.

If we pay attention, we might come to see that our communities are holy. We might come to know that our world is holy, that God permeates every inch of it. We might come to know that we are holy, that God dwells not in a tabernacle but in us. We might come to know that our neighbor is holy, the place where we are most likely to meet and to serve the Mysterious and Holy Incarnate One.

Let us pray.

Grant us eyes to see your holiness all around us in ourselves, in our communities, in our world, in our neighbors, through Christ our Lord. Amen.