A form. And a face.
I spent Monday afternoon at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan with an alumnus of Fairfield University, where I have been teaching. The museum has become famous in recent years for being featured in the movie Night at the Museum and its two sequels. In those movies, the exhibited stuffed animals and dummy statues of Neanderthals and Native Americans and Theodore Roosevelt all come to life at night, causing mayhem and chaos for a newly-hired night watchman played by Ben Stiller.
When I was a kid I visited the museum with my mama on a class trip. But it has been a long time since my last visit: I’m guessing more than 50 years. As we purchased our tickets, my young friend and I thought it would be a fun afternoon. But after about a half hour into our visit, we both admitted that it was pretty boring, and we started making jokes about some of the exhibits that we were seeing.
There was room after room of life-sized dioramas behind large glass windows: stuffed buffalo grazing peacefully on wild grass; stuffed giraffes eating the leaves of fake trees; stuffed birds, lions, elephants, monkeys, and a whole bunch of other dead animals in front of large, painted, fake scenery backgrounds that were supposed to recreate the environments where they normally lived.
There were also many scenes that had unrealistic-looking mannequins representing early humans, frozen in place as they cooked pretend food on pretend fires, or fished pretend lakes, or crafted pretend axes that I suppose would allow them to hunt pretend animals. Like at all museums, there were lengthy and boring written explanations at each exhibit, trying to tell the historical story of the nature all around us.
Looking around, I was pretty sure that these exhibits hadn’t changed at all since I visited the museum as a boy. I doubted they would still capture the attention of children today, who can see far more amazing depictions of nature on an iPad. Given all our amazing technology, I thought, couldn’t they do something more with all of this? It all looked so lifeless, drab, outdated. It was no wonder that they made three popular movies centered on the idea that the exhibits came to life at night!
As a filmmaker, I realized that there was something very important missing in the museum, a fundamental element of filmmaking and all storytelling, including the real stories of our lives.
What was missing was any mention of conflict.
The reason we pay attention to stories, the reason why we are not bored by them is because they reveal an essential truth about life. In life, there is always a struggle. There are obstacles. There is competition. Animals devour one another, blood is shed in fights over instinct, territory, control, ideology, and sometimes centuries-old revenge. In the world we live in, goodness always lives right next to abomination, savagery and evil. Fear, greed, envy, pride, lust, apathy, self-indulgence, and anger live beside purity, patience, diligence, compassion, kindness, humility, moderation and peace.
If museums are supposed to reveal the truth about life, they fail if they do not show the brutality and the heartlessness amidst the dioramas of peace. There was none of that in the Museum of Natural History.
On that museum visit with my class over 50 years ago, my mother came along as a parent chaperone. I was very proud that she was with us, and of course I believed it gave me a kind of special status. I don’t remember the particular details, but I recall that I became jealous of the attention that my mom was giving to a kid I didn’t really like in the class. I saw him as a bully, and he hadn’t been nice to me. So I decided to pull rank on him when it came time for lunch. I purposely excluded him from sitting at our table in the cafeteria, even though he clearly wanted to sit with us. When I saw my triumph over the kid, I was happy.
My mother understood what was going on, and later when we were getting ready to board the bus to go home, she pulled me aside to talk to me. She told me that what I did wasn’t nice, it wasn’t the right way to act. She explained to me that the kid had problems, and wasn’t as lucky as I was in lots of ways, and that it was important to be especially nice to him. I protested, of course, telling her that he had been mean to me, but she insisted that I try to be the better ‘man’. Maybe you could sit with him on the bus, she said, gently urging me on. I was so relieved when I boarded and found him already sitting with a partner. I missed the opportunity to act the right way.
The salvation of Monday’s visit for me was the planetarium section of the museum. In that part of the museum they use entertaining movies and technology-active exhibits to explain the truth about the universe. They don’t spare the conflict, the struggle or the obstacles. There is real drama in the story of the birth of everything. We watched a short film narrated by Liam Neeson about the Big Bang, and the development of the universe with its trillions of galaxies and their trillions of stars and planets. I was inspired, as I always am when I contemplate the incredible cosmic reality of which we are a part.
It’s the big picture, you know, which most of us ignore as we go about the minutiae of our day, content perhaps to live within the confines of the small prison we create for ourselves. Out there, among the other stars still hurtling across the unending emptiness and void, the whole truth can be perceived. From among those stars, galaxies, clusters and superclusters, the dazzling outline of the meaning of our little lives begins to present itself.
It has a form, and a face.
When Jesus attempted to explain who he was to the simple men who were his friends and followers, they didn’t understand. He tried to cushion the blow of what he knew would be his imminent departure from them. When he warned them that he was going ahead 'to prepare a better place for them' with his Father, it devastated them. If your home is where your heart is, then their home was being sold out from under them, and their hearts were broken. "Do not let your hearts be troubled", he said to them, and then he promised them that he would always be with them if they could raise their hearts and their minds to the truth that was all around them, if they could break free of the small prisons that they had made for themselves. He would be one with the very essence of the universe, with the supreme creator who set the stars to shine and the planets to spin. Look for me, he said, underneath everything that is, infusing and defeating the abomination, savagery and evil with astounding goodness. He told them that through his sacrifice the conflict was over, the war was won for all time.
He--the way, and the truth and the life: a cosmic Christ, the Omega of all creation. He is the purpose or final cause for which all things are made.
Sometimes we are as clueless as his friends, the apostles. When we speak about God, we are like babies, unable to grasp the enormity of the idea, and our expression of God’s reality is beyond us. If we can’t really get our minds around trillions of galaxies with trillions of stars and planets, how can we dare to understand the creator of all of them?
It is only Jesus who gives us any hope for that access--only in Jesus, the way, Jesus the truth, Jesus the life---can we connect to the power that lives within us.
There is nothing boring about our natural history. The seed of its fullness in Jesus the Christ was embedded in the very first living cell that was born on the good earth. It sprouted in the complex life that followed, in the creatures who crossed the threshold of consciousness, in our ancient brothers and sisters who first entered into self-consciousness. And it came to fruition and maturity in the incarnation of one mother’s child whose name was Jesus.
At the blessing of the Paschal Candle on the Easter vigil, the priest prays, “Christ yesterday and today; Beginning and End; Alpha and Omega; All times are His and all ages; To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of eternity.”
One mother’s child, the Alpha and the Omega, ruling over the trillions and trillions of stars, galaxies, clusters and superclusters. Ruling over the good earth and all its trees, grasses and flowers, all the birds of the air, fish in the sea, animals on the land, all of us, brothers and sisters.
How is it possible? Well that mother had something to do with it. Her holiness and her nurturing, her lessons about acting the right way, her willingness to participate in the incarnation of the earth. She was in some way like all our mothers, and it was at her breast he was first nourished by her selfless love.
Holy Mary, Mother of Our Lord Jesus, Hear our prayer for our own dear mothers. Take their hand as we hold her in our hearts and minds. Let the strength you have known as a mother fill their bodies. Let the devotion you feel for your son fill their hearts. Let the grace that surrounds you fill their spirits. Holy Mary, may your divine presence In our mothers lives, today and every day, bring them joy and peace forever. Amen.