A cool thing happened last fall on September 14, just before 6:00 a.m. You probably didn’t notice, and most of us didn’t hear about it until last month.
But on September 14, just before 6:00 in the morning, two observatories – one in Louisiana and one in Washington – detected a gravitational wave for the very first time.
In February of this year, this discovery was made public, and a whole bunch of scientists went nuts, because they’d been trying to detect gravitational waves since Albert Einstein first predicted their existence 100 years ago.
So, here’s what a gravitational wave is. Think about a boat moving across a very still lake. It makes waves, right? Well, if there was another boat also moving across the lake, also making waves, and the two boats crashed into each other, they would make even bigger waves.
The gravitational waves detected last fall are kind of like that. Two enormous black holes somewhere in space, got caught in each other’s orbit and were spinning around and around each other so fast that they eventually ran into each other and merged into one. And the force of that collision sent waves out into the universe and were finally detected by these observatories.
This collision – get this – happened more than a billion years ago. A billion years ago, these two black holes ran into each other and sent a ripple through the fabric of spacetime and we just found out about it.
There is no part of my brain that understands any of this.
It’s like getting a letter in the mail from your great, great, great, great grandmother telling you what life was like back then. But it’s not like the letter was stuck in the post office this whole time and just got discovered. It’s like your great, great, great, great grandmother just sent from wherever she is in the time/space continuum, and arrived in your mailbox, in the here and now.
The importance of these gravitational waves – the reason all those scientists were jumping up and down to tell us about it – is that it points to the fact that Albert Einstien was probably right about his theory of relativity – the idea that time and space are connected to each other in ways we can’t quite wrap our heads around.
This is totally intriguing to me, and I can’t stop reading about it. I’ve always been a little fascinated with stories about time travel. Ever since Michael J. Fox set foot in the Delorean in 1985 and met his parents in 1955, I’ve loved the way time travel stories boggle your mind and make you rethink something as basic as time, which you thought you understood.
As I’ve observed it, there seem to sort of be a couple different theories of time travel – and here I’m talking about science fiction theories, not the sort of theorems put forth by Einstein and the gravitational waves scientists. Most science fiction time travel assumes that time travels on a straight line, and that if you jump around in and make changes, then everything that happens later on down the line gets changed as well. This is why it is important for Marty McFly to not get in the way of his parents falling in love before he is born.
But there’s another way of looking at time travel, which is that all time is happening at once, and that every moment of time is happening at the same moment of time as everything else. That’s the general idea behind one of my favorite time travel stories, called the Time Traveler’s Wife. The main character in that story, Henry, pops in and out of time, and the appearance of his future self into the past doesn’t really change the future, because it’s all sort of happening at once.
This doesn’t make any sense, of course, because it’s not how we experience time. Our experience is that time moves in one direction, and that there’s no going back and changing things or jumping ahead to find out how things turn out. It’s just time.
But is it? Is time something we live in? Or something that happens to us? Or something we can control or change?
Like daylight savings time – we all managed to get her on time this morning because we all changed our clocks last night. But is it really 10:00 because we say it is? Have we succeeded in shifting time? Or does time march right on without us?
Okay, so hang on to that for a minute and let’s take a look at Mark, chapter 13, vs. 1-8.
Jesus is in Jerusalem. This is in the final days of his life, he’s making his way closer and closer to the cross, though his disciples don’t quite get it yet. They’re looking around at the temple and say, Hey, Jesus, look how big these buildings are!
Jesus then gives them this prediction that they are not expecting. He says: this temple, these buildings, these enormous stones… they’re all going to come crashing down.
And they want to know: When will these things happen?
They’re asking a question about time. They want to make a note on their calendar: temple destruction scheduled for next Tuesday, 9:15 a.m.
They want to know when in time these things will happen.
Now, a couple things to note. The first is that for Mark’s readers, there’s actually a little bit of a time warp going on here. The Gospel of Mark, we think, was the earliest of the gospels to be written down, and it was probably written around the year 80 or 90, a generation or so after Jesus died, and – significantly for this passage – not long after the temple was actually destroyed by the Roman army.
Get that? So the original readers of Mark would have still been reeling from the fact that their beloved temple, the center of their life and worship, had been destroyed – and here they are reading a story about how Jesus predicted just such an event a few generations ago.
In 1915, Albert Einstein predicted that that if there was a catastrophic event big enough – like two black holes smashing into each other – it would produce gravitational waves that we could detect on earth. In 2015, we felt those waves, from a collision that happened a billion years before Einstein was born.
I’m beginning to think that we don’t actually understand time at all.
The second thing to know about this story is that it’s an apocalyptic story. Writings that predicted the apocalypse – the end times, the end of the world – were a particular type of literature in the ancient world. (And really, still today; we could name as many movies about the apocalypse as we could about time travel.)
Apocalyptic literature – in the ancient world, and maybe in ours, too, came from the worldview that everything happening on earth, every battle between good and evil corresponds to an other-worldly struggle between good and evil, and that it’s all moving toward an inevitable and dramatic end.
The disciples want to know: When will these things happen? When will the end come? When will God’s promises come true?
This is a linear view of time, right? Things are moving in a particular direction, straight onward, moving toward some end point in the future that we can imagine but can’t quite see yet.
But maybe what we are learning is that time does not work like that.
Maybe what we are beginning to see is that God’s someday breaks into our now.
Cause here’s the thing: When Jesus is talking to his disciples about those enormous stones being torn down from the temple, he’s only a few days away from being hung on a cross. Only a few days away from being torn down himself. Time is marching on and carrying him straight toward his inevitable end.
But of course, it is not the end. Because something happens there that makes the end not the end. That makes even death not the end. That makes time stand still even as it moves on around us.
The good news of the cross and the resurrection is that God – God the eternal, God who is alpha and omega, beginning and end—the eternal God enters into our time. The future that God has promised shows up in the present tense. Christ brings God’s someday into our time now.
Everything I read about the detection of those gravitational waves, every scientist quoted said that this discovery is a very big deal. A Very Big Deal – all caps – that opens up new ways of exploring the universe, raises new question about who we are and how we exist in relation to space and time, moves us closer to understanding the nature of time itself.
This makes little sense to those of us who have not spent our lives studying Einstein’s theories and looking to the sky for a wave from the past. To those of us for whom time moves ever onward despite our feeble attempts to tame it by changing our clocks twice a year, we can’t quite imagine anything other than straightforward time.
So maybe we are not looking closely enough. Maybe we are not listening carefully enough.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t answer that question from the disciples – he doesn’t give them a date when the temple will fall, a time when these things will happen. He just says: stay awake. Watch. Pay attention.
Those scientists at the observatories – the ones that finally detected the gravitational waves – have been listening carefully for years. They’ve set up big, complicated, expensive equipment, all for the purpose of scanning the skies for some sign that something out of the ordinary is happening.
We don’t have to look that far away.
We don’t have to look very far at all, in fact, to see that God’s someday breaks into our now.
I read a story this week – a heartbreaking story about a couple who lost a baby shortly after birth. Some complication led to the baby being born far too soon to be able to live very long on its own, so the couple were placed in the heart-wrenching position of having to say goodbye to this child that they had just met.
The mother described holding the baby, looking down at the sweet little face and – instead of feeling the weight of grief and sadness – instead felt a calmness she wasn’t expecting. A sense of peace – joy, even. She said later that it was the most joy-filled moment she’s ever experienced, and probably the most joy-filled she’ll ever be.
And there’s something holy in that. It’s not to say that that moment of joy will peel away all her grief. Or that she won’t ever sink down into the depths of her sadness again. Or even to say that there is always a moment of joyfulness in the middle of pain.
But what I do think happened in that holy moment of unexpected joy is that God’s someday broke into our now.
We don’t have to look very far at all to see it.
We’ve been talking, during Lent, about this “ancient path” we’ve walked together. And it strikes me that such a path is not a linear thing either. We are neither far behind or far ahead of those who have walked before us. The path exists simply as we walk it, in the here and now. It is both ancient and future and present all at once. God’s someday promise breaks in and walks alongside us now.
Which is what happens at the communion table, too. In the here and now of the bread and cup, Christ’s eternal presence makes itself known, drawing us ever toward one another and toward God. Moments of grief get intermingled with moments of joy. Sin gets mixed with grace. Hope greets despair, and we taste God’s eternal love for us.
Come then, beloved people of God. Let us gather at the table in the here and now and share the eternal feast that has been set for us.