Be good, be great, be holy, believe.
Of course I went to the opening night of the newest Star Wars movie on Thursday at a huge IMAX theater in Connecticut. It’s called the Last Jedi, and I have a particular interest in it because, well, wanting to become a kind of Jedi was part of the reason why I joined the Jesuit order in the first place. It’s not that I confused the names—Jedi, Jesuit (although both do begin with J and E). I’m dumb, but not that dumb. It was the fact that they both seemed to dedicate their lives to serving humanity, fighting the darkness of the world with the blinding vision of the Force, and of course with those super cool Jedi light sabers.
I’ve always been inspired by science fiction movies. I guess it’s because for most of my adult life I have tried to grasp the idea of the astonishing universe into which we are all born. How amazing is it that we are little specks of life on a planet that is part of a solar system with billions of other planets, amidst billions of other solar systems, stretching so far that our imaginations blow apart at the very attempt to comprehend it all? Out there amidst the overwhelming darkness, beneath it all, comprehending it all, is the Architect, and the Force that beckons us to realize our meaning, participate in its ongoing creation.
On the way home from the movie a warning light appeared on my dashboard, indicating that my pressure was low on one of my tires. I pulled off onto shoulder of the deserted highway to check it out. The tire looked OK, so maybe the sensor was malfunctioning. It was freezing cold and I was about to jump back into the warmth of the car, but I looked up at the sky, and it was filled with stars, visible without the light pollution of the city. And out there in nowheresville Connecticut, it was eerily silent: no cars on the road, no birdcalls or animal sounds, no din of the city. Shivering, I couldn’t take my eyes off the vastness of the night sky, and I wondered if there were any real wars going on out there amongst the stars. Scanning from east to west, I thought that maybe I caught sight of Mars, the one planet within our reach that might have harbored life in some way as we know it.
Six years ago NASA launched a rocket to Mars, carrying with it the world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer, a rover vehicle called Curiosity. The primary goal of the $2.5 billion mission has been to see whether cold, dry, barren Mars might have been hospitable for microbial life once upon a time -- or might even still be conducive to life now. Curiosity is still exploring the red planet, and although it was originally supposed to have a two year mission, it just celebrated its 5th year of work on the planet, with no end in sight.
I am more interested in a minor part of the mission. Included on the rover is a small microphone, not unlike one you’d find on your telephone. It is supposed to monitor the ‘sound’ of Mars, send back to us what it ‘sounds like’ on another planet.
I am fascinated by the idea of it, and by the possibilities of the broadcast. There have been sounds. Is it ET phoning home to his neighbors, do we hear the swirling sounds of Martian wind or startling claps of Martian thunder, is the microphone picking up the subtle sounds of Martian soil settling, the tiny protest of rocks expanding beneath the hot sun, contracting under frigid darkness of night? Or is it simply transmitting the eternal silence of an empty and lifeless planet? On its fifth birthday, Curiosity actually made its own sound on Mars, playing out a lonely rendering of Happy Birthday to itself across the barren landscape of the planet.
Years ago, in 1977, the same year that the first Star Wars movie was released, the United States launched two exploration satellites called Voyager I and Voyager II. They were designed to tour our solar system, conduct flybys of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, send back pictures and data especially about our farthest neighbors. They performed their jobs remarkably well, and incredibly, forty years later they are still functioning. Both Voyagers have left our solar system, breaking away from the gravitational pull of the sun, and they are well on their way on a journey that will take them to the outer reaches of the universe.
There are no microphones on the Voyagers, but they have voices. Each carries a recording of the earth, a 12” gold-plated copper disk, on which is encoded selected sounds of our planet. There are the sounds of wind, surf, rain and thunder; the sounds of birds and animals; the sounds of human life---footsteps, heartbeats, laughter…the sounds of a baby laughing and a baby crying, and her mother gently comforting her. There are selections of music from many cultures around the world and from the United States one and only one song: “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. Finally, there are recorded greetings to the universe in all the known languages of our home, spoken by a young voice in these simple words: “Hello from the children of planet earth.”
At this very moment, Voyager is carrying our sounds and voices through the dark and desert silence of space. It is a wondrous thing, this messenger of our little planet, this word of us flying through space to worlds unknown and even undreamed. And the word is a good word, a word of peace, and beauty, of life, and of love. “Hello from the children of planet earth.”
Some years ago, shortly after my mother died, I had the chance to visit a desert for the first time, in southern California. Early one morning I woke up to see the sun rise over the desert valley. It was magnificent, awe-inspiring. I was perched on top of a small desert mountain, and the whole arid valley was spread below me for as far as I could see. Beyond the spectacular view, I was completely bowled over by the sound of the desert. In the desert, there is no wind, no birds, no cars, no music, no sound of the refrigerator or the air blowing from the vent, not even a dog barking. It is sheer and utter silence.
Into that silence, from the top of the mountain, I called out my mother’s name. My voice, and my mother’s name, echoed back to me across from a neighboring hill. I felt like I was giving her back to the earth from which she had come, to the good Divinity who had created her, sustained her, who had lent her to me for my childhood and my nurturing. I understood there, in the desert, that the good word is powerful and needs silence to be heard. I understood why it was always in the desert that prophets met divinity, and that only in the desert can the truth be spoken and heard.
2000 years ago on this little planet of ours, the last Jedi spoke out into the darkness: John, who still speaks out into the desert of our souls. Like Yoda, he has greetings for each of us, he has words of wisdom and words of advice, words of peace, and beauty, of life, and of love.
“There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me…”, the one whom Isaiah joyously proclaimed would “ bring glad tidings to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners…” John, whose voice echoes across the desert hills of our hearts, tells us to make ready for something wonderful to be born in our lives, “one whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie”, John, the prophet in love with love itself tell us to ‘make our lives straight for the coming of the Lord’, tells us to do it right here, right now, especially in Advent, to prepare for the birth of love in our lives. Clear out, clean up, purify, make yourself ‘perfectly holy and blameless in spirit soul and body for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
Prophet John, speaking across the miles and the ages, lonely craft launched 2000 years ago, singing something like this: Johnny B. Goode, you and I, be good, make ready for Jesus in your life.
That’s where we are today, in the third week of Advent. There is still time to prepare. Listen. Listen really hard. Listen for the voice, speaking to you. Be good, be great, be holy, believe.