We live in a distant suburb of our 100,000+ light-year-wide Milky Way galaxy. (Remember it takes only eight minutes and 20 seconds for the light from our sun to reach earth.) Our solar system spins around the galactic hub on the inner side of one of the loose spiral aggregations of gas and dust that branch out from the central bulge of our elliptical galaxy. Our cosmic neighbourhood is called the Orion Arm by astronomers, because some of the stars of the well-known winter constellation of Orion lay within it, including Betelgeuse, and Rigel and the stars making up this hunter of Greek myth’s belt.
The nearest star to us on the Orion Arm is Proxima Centauri some 4.3 light years away. Estimates place the number of stars in our galaxy as high as 200 billion stars, each with potential planetary systems of their own. The nearest galaxy to ours is designated M31, which can be seen in a dark night sky just at the limits of what a sharp human eye can see in a constellation we call Andromeda. This spiral galaxy some 2.5 million light years away from us likely has a trillion star systems like our solar system within it.
The numbers just keep getting bigger when you try to imagine the galactic count in the observable universe. Using today’s instruments the expanding universe is believed to stretch out 13.8 billion light years in all directions from us. Scientists analyzing the data from the Hubble Space Telescope last year set 2 trillion as their estimate for the number of galaxies in the universe. The new James Webb Space Telescope will surely see even more.
Two trillion galaxies with billions of stars each, which in turn having planetary systems spinning around them, leave us with mind-boggling planetary numbers. One estimate placed the numbers of far-off worlds at well beyond the total number of all the grains of sand on earth!
Life on our small, blue planet Earth is truly a miracle as would be life on other planets also. Way back during my undergraduate days in the 1960s at the Jesuit-run St. Louis University I wrote a paper on the concept of cosmic polygenism for one of my theology classes. Theologians have long debated the concept of polygeny here on earth, which posits the descent of humans from two or more independent pairs of ancestors. When dealing with our increasingly complicated family tree, recent information such as the discoveries that Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens ssp. Denisova genes appear in European and Asian populations, our Homo sapiens sapiens species, freshens this debate. Add to this the increasing possibility of intelligent life spread out across our universe and new perspectives open.
Can we see the theological possibility of multiple creation episodes, the God spark touching creatures across the universe? My research found many theologians decades ago at the dawn of the Space Age contemplating God’s presence mirrored in all the universe as a given. They saw that we had to at least consider the possibility of multiple creations.
We celebrate the end of our liturgical year with the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The first reading on this last Sunday in Ordinary Time comes from the prophet Ezekiel. When written in the sixth century BC, Ezekiel and his wife lived in Babylonia along with other exiles forced from Judah. Far from his homeland, Ezekiel understood how previous kings had been false shepherds. Writing for a beaten, frightened and weary people, he has the Lord God speaking directly and intimately to his scattered people as a good shepherd. Comfortingly he says, “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Psalm 23 reinforces this image in the refrain “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
Paul writing to the Corinthians in the second reading foresees a long struggle until the risen Christ “has put all his enemies under his feet,” including death. At that point, “When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.”
The Gospel reading from Matthew connects the totality of God’s creation with the Son of Man who comes to “sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.” Using image of a king he portrays a very unorthodox image of his kingdom where king and the humble, whether sick, imprisoned, homeless or hungry, are synonymous. He tells those who are judged worthy it is by their actions attending to the needs of the poor and outcast that they inherit the kingdom. “Truly I tell to you, just as you did it to one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
On this feast Jesus is characterized as a king and as a shepherd, glorious and humble at the very same time. While today these regal and agrarian images may seem distant and alienating, they are certainly far less challenging than the cosmic reality that science now opens before us. Whatever images we chose, our triune God, the Alpha and Omega, the primum mobile of all creation, remains for us at the centre of the cosmic story and the message proclaimed truly universal.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.