Posted by: dacalu | 16 January 2019

Home by Another Road

Christians celebrate Christmas for 12 full days. On the thirteenth day, January 6th, we turn our gaze from the miracle of Jesus’ birth to the illumination of his life. The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the adoration of the magi. Wise men (scholars or kings from the East) visited the infant Jesus. The meeting of secular and sacred wisdom makes Epiphany a good meditation for Christians involved in science. This year, I shared the following reflection with the Society of Ordained Scientists.

Home by Another Road

In 2014, the New Horizons team scanned the heavens. Their spacecraft, launched eight years earlier, was headed for Pluto and the farthest reaches of the Solar System. They knew they had enough fuel for one more flyby after the primary mission. A tiny speck at 45 AU – forty-five times the distance of Earth from the Sun – caught their attention.

This year on January 1st, New Horizons passed within 2,200 miles of the rock, officially named 2014 MU69. It sent back a picture that looks like a snowman. Two rough spheres, 12 and 9 miles across, collided and stuck. To date, this is the farthest object visited by human ingenuity. Unofficially, astronomers dubbed it Ultima Thule. The name comes from ancient descriptions of a country north of Scotland. In the middle ages, it became a byword for the farthest reach of human civilization.

New Horizons did not stop at Pluto. We are still receiving data, but the mission promises to tell us something about the earliest days of planet formation. The surface of Pluto was far younger than anyone expected, but Ultima Thule appears untouched by the 4,500,000,000 years since Earth was new. The mission will also tell us more about the Kuiper Belt, objects orbiting beyond the ring of Neptune. As J.R.R. Tolkien said, roads go ever on.

The gospel reading for Epiphany reminds me that the Magi returned home by another road. For fear of Herod, and to protect the child Jesus, they avoided Jerusalem. Matthew does not tell us the road they took, though many have speculated. Like New Horizons, their journey did not end when they reached their destination. It went on.

Some roads circle back. The Magi may have returned to their homes. But, if they did, they were changed. The road back was not the same as the road out. God makes all things new, even home. Perhaps home especially. Familiar injustices are the hardest to correct, familiar virtues the hardest to praise.

Some roads go to the horizon. New Horizons will never return home. With Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, it will pass on to interstellar space. For them, the path leads higher up and deeper in. Sometimes God calls us to out into the wilds, where the word of God matters in a new way. We have seen Jesus and the world will never be the same.

I often long to return home by the same road. I want yesterday’s answers to be enough for tomorrow. I want to complete faith, accomplish hope, and succeed at love. But these are not achievements. Nor are they treasures to be kept in a box. They live and move. Roads go ever on, even when they make a circle.

All of our education is for the road ahead. It is for this moment, as God reshapes the path beneath our feet. We will need to know about the foundations of the world, and the depths of space, and the place of humanity. We will need to know the things that hold fast and the things that are shaken. In short, we will need celestial navigation. The road ahead is always new.

Jesus was born for this. We came for this. And so, we go forth, to be a light in the darkness, and to bring God’s love to the very ends of the world.


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