Our Assistant Priest Writes
Last month I spent a couple of days exploring the night sky at the Astronomy Festival in Sussex, at the National Observatory at Herstmonceaux Castle. It was amazing to see the moon and the planets – including Saturn, picked out to the naked eye as a dot in the sky to the north west but visible in all of its resplendent glory through the large telescopes, with its rings clear and even Titan, one of its moons, shining brightly many millions of miles from where we were sitting on Earth.
It came as a shock to learn that Saturn is about 734 times the size of earth. We’re used to thinking of earth as large but in galactic terms it’s really tiny. And once you start scaling up to the sizes of the larger suns in the universe – the ones we know about – the scale simply disappears. If our sun were to be represented as a basketball, the earth would be about the size of a peppercorn. But there are suns which are many times larger than our own sun. In fact, if our sun were the size of a basketball placed on a table, there is a sun which, on that scale would be bigger than our whole planet.
And when we start to try and calculate the size of the nebula clouds in which stars are formed, it’s difficult to think about. Through one telescope lens we were shown a cluster of newly formed stars so distant that the light showing their formation started out to reach us over three billion years ago. It brought into sharp focus the line form the hymn ‘Hands that flung stars into space’. As Douglas Adams wrote in the Hitch-Hiker’s guide to the Galaxy: ‘Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.’
And that should give us pause every time we talk of ‘God and creation’; when we talk of God’s purpose in creating us or when think of ourselves as the ‘crown of all creation’, not least because we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the created order. We exist in a thin film of gasses and liquids less than a smear on a small planet on the unregarded western spiral arm of one galaxy. Our very existence would seem to be as miraculous as it is precarious.
So at this time of year, when we give thanks to God for the harvest, we need to remember not only the hard work and favourable conditions of the seasons that has produced things we can eat and share, we also need to reflect on God’s marvellous providence which makes our existence not only possible but sustainable too. Somehow thankfulness seems too small a response.