Joy and Hope
January 9, 2010
Christ brings the light of faith and reason
Growing up in Southern California, one grows accustomed to the usual tourist attraction treks: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios, Magic Mountain and, if all else fails, a local mega shopping mall.
My last residence was at St. Boniface Church in Anaheim, whose parish boundaries included Disneyland. Every Sunday there were Disneyland tourists coming to Mass. The parish had a regular routine of welcoming the out-of-towners. We even apologized for the weather if it did not live up to the normal expectation of Southern California sunshine.
I was very aware of the rich array of museums, missions, botanical gardens and other Southern California sights that did not require a long serpentine queue to see. It always made me a little sad when most people, even locals, were generally unfamiliar with other things besides “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “It’s a Small World.”
When my nephews and nieces were young children and I was a young priest, I would take them on trips to these alternative places in Southern California with the determination of exposing them to more than the “Teacup Ride.” Whenever I would mention the name of the museum or other cultural center there was the usual perplexed look as if they were not programmed for such activity or I was taking them into some parallel dimension for which they might not return. They came along in any event, usually with their parents’ assurance that it would be “good” for them. On such occasions a sibling or brother-in-law would come along, in case I lost control of them between the Mayan artifacts and the German Expressionist art.
One such local adventure – which I recommend to all who read this tale – was the famous, at least for some of us, Griffith Observatory. As one travels Highway 101 you can usually see it nestled up in the Hollywood Hills to the right and up from the old Hollywood sign. If the place is known to some it would be because of its brief moment in the spotlight during the old James Dean film, “Rebel without a Cause.” A bust of James Dean at the entrance to the Griffith Observatory commemorates that instant of celluloid notoriety.
The observatory itself looks like it came out of a Buck Rogers serial. It could have been a Gotham City scene in any of the Batman movies. Besides the noteworthy architectural features to this classic Los Angeles building, there is also the view. As usual in L.A. during the day, you take your chances with views. Most days you will see how the metropolitan basin traps all the ocean haze and urban fumes into a murky muck that only allows the noises of the city to rise up to the balconies of the observatory. In the evening, it becomes a carpet of lights stretching out into the horizon until the sparkle of the city mixes with the twinkle of the stars, with the planes from LAX sailing back and forth across the cool velvet darkness.
I usually took them to the observatory during their Christmas break. Their parents usually needed someone upon whom to unload their children while they finished last-minute Christmas shopping. Besides the convenience of such a trip during that time of year, there was also a special Christmas program every year at the observatory called the “The Christmas Star.”
The observatory boasted an old “star machine.” It was a whimsical contraption of gears and lights that looks like it belongs in a Harry Potter flick. The machine, built before computers and digital imaging, could calculate and project the night sky for any time in history and anyplace on the globe. With this machine, the observatory organized an annually amusing, light-hearted search for the Christmas star of Bethlehem that drew the magi to find the child Jesus, based on the account from the Gospel according to Matthew. It was a mixture of astronomy, Scripture, music, literature and fun that usually persuaded my nephews and nieces that their uncle wasn’t so boring after all. He knew some cool places to go.
I always enjoyed the program because it plays in that seldom-ventured terrain between faith and reason. The ordered celestial movements of the stars and the planets seen during that program were as astounding as any hypothesis about where and when appeared the Star of Bethlehem. That a harmony in heaven might point to the destiny of humanity’s hopes was left unresolved by the observatory’s program. The dance between faith and reason will perhaps always be that way. Faith will always be a gift. Faith can give us a better appreciation for the beauty of science and harmony of reason. Reason will seldom reach faith on its own. In fact, reason on its own often resists the lover’s leap of faith, perhaps because only love can make that leap.
This interesting excursion between faith and reason is a good place to be, not only to visit. This must have been the space into which the Magi journeyed. The men, who were masters of the science of their time, were drawn to make a perilous leap into a journey that would bring them to faith’s destiny as they knelt to adore the child Jesus nestled in the arms of Mary.
That journey continues for us today as we enter this new year. There persists much uncertainty and anguish about the region’s economy and state government’s stability. Many families and friends worry for their children deployed in faraway Afghanistan and Iraq. Faith still struggles to bring its light into an array of public discourses: abortion, health care, the war, the traditional definition of marriage, and the human costs of the failing economy. Listening to the current state of public discourse, one might even wonder whether reason has also abandoned the public square.
This is where faith can take the hand of reason and look to the heavens for a glimmer of hope. The feast of Christmas usually approximates the winter solstice, that astronomical phenomenon when the earth begins to tilt back towards the sun in her annual orbit, causing our days in the northern hemisphere to length into the long stretch of the days of summer.
This natural occurrence became the annual reminder of what the coming of Christ brings to our world. He brings light, both the light of faith and the light of reason, for he is the author of both. We should pray for both and not be reticent to use both as we seek, like the Magi, an epiphany of the Lord’s wisdom, grace and peace in 2010.