The period of Lent comes as a remembrance of Jesus’ fast for forty days. He goes out to the desert, away from the distractions of life – away from friends and family as well as food. I look at this with awe. I’m connected online pretty much every moment I’m awake. I like food, and I like the fast pace of twenty-first century life with its ever-changing stimulus. I currently live in Tokyo, which can do intensity in all its forms. There are districts here where the bright lights, flashing neon and wall of sound is like a physical blow. Take two steps and there is yet another loudspeaker, megascreen, or crowd of people. I love it! Food, friends, family, fun – I could just about manage a day away from these things. I can’t imagine having the strength of will to abandon them for over a month.
In the Bible there is a startling snippet of a story from that time. It comes just after Jesus had been publiclyidentified as the Son of God, the Messiah, the one all Israel has been waiting for. With God’s voice declaring over him ‘you are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased’, the weight of expectation was on him. How was he going to deliver his nation? Would he be a triumphant king, driving out the Roman oppressors, restoring peace? What sort of Messiah was he going to be? How would he fulfill this destiny?
So for Jesus this time in the desert really started with his identity as ‘Son of God’. And the question of identity, ‘Who am I?’, is perhaps the most basic but most difficult question to answer. We define ourselves through many different things – our job, our families, our faith. For me, I’m an astronomer, and I work on black holes using space satellites. This is why I live in Tokyo. I was part of the team planning how to use data from a new Japanese satellite that launched last year. Yes, I’m a rocket scientist – which always goes down well when introducing myself at parties. I’m married – my husband is a mathematician – and that just doesn’t get the same reaction! But neither jobs nor relationships last forever, as I found out in rather dramatic fashion.
I had organized a year sabbatical from the UK to work on the new satellite data. Just before we boarded the plane to come to Tokyo I got emails saying that they had lost radio contact, and that something quite drastic had happened to the satellite. My first day here in my new job has to go down as the worst ever. It was cherry blossom time, and clouds of incongruously joyous pink flowers were blooming as my friends and colleagues were coming to terms with the fact that we’d lost the biggest satellite Japan had ever launched – the one they’d spent years of their working life building. We had hoped for seven years of discovery and excitement with the new data – career-changing breakthroughs. We got three weeks. All things in life are transient; they can and will be taken away sooner or later.
Better, then, to build our identity on something more solid. I’m a Christian, which comes as a surprise to people who think science and faith are incompatible. Modern science has indeed disproved a literal six-day creation six thousand years ago, but that’s not the only interpretation for the first few chapters of Genesis. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great theologians and fathers of the early Church, wrote a book called ‘The Literal meaning of Genesis’ in 408AD. This is long before anyone had any need from science to question a literal six-day creation. Yet he wrote ‘what kind of days these are is very difficult and perhaps impossible to understand’. And he urged that we should be willing to change our minds about how we interpret Genesis in the light of new evidence. Augustine then would probably look in bemusement at the idea of a science-faith conflict, and so do I. For me, the more I know about the vast, yet intricate and beautiful Universe in which we live, the bigger and more awe inspiring is the God who made it.
My Christian faith is a more fundamental part of my identity because it defines me in terms of a relationship that is eternal and unchanging rather than subject to the transience of life. In the language of the Bible, God is somehow beyond time. This actually resonates well with an astronomer’s view of time. The ‘Big Bang’ origin of our universe is not just an explosive beginning of matter and energy, it’s the origin of space and time as well. In Einstein’s gravity, space and time are not a fixed backdrop on which the Universe unfolds, but a dynamic, integral part of its evolution. Insofar as a creator has a separate existence from their creation, God is likewise outside of the space and time of this and any other Universe.
For Jesus, the declaration of his eternal identity as God’s son came also with affirmation that he is loved by God and pleasing to him. Affirmation, approval, love – these are things we all need – they give us bedrock security. Jesus is going to absolutely need to have this as his basis in the years that follo: in the years when public adulation and fame could go to his head and the competing pressures of other people’s expectations are going to be intense. He is absolutely going to need to know that he is loved and approved of by God.
But given this, all manner of options open up. He is the Son – which makes him the heir – sharing in the identity of an almighty eternal God, the one who made all things, and who has all power. Surely an all-powerful God who loves him, who has publicly identified with him, and is pleased with him will answer his every prayer? This is where the story of Jesus in the desert ends, with him being tempted three times by the devil to use God’s power for his own purposes. All three start the same way with his identity: ‘since you are the son of God’ says the devil.
So how will he use the power that comes with this identity as son of God? What is his destiny? How does he want to be remembered?
I think all of us want to be remembered for something. We want our lives to have had some impact – whether that be in the memories of family and friends, or across a wider community. As humans we build cities, create works of art, write books, launch satellites. All these things leave an imprint of our lives on the future.
But what is there that has lasting impact? My satellite lasted three weeks! Perhaps for people with children, there is the thought that some part of them gets passed on forever through their genes. Their childrens’, childrens’, children,shaping and experiencing the far future that we will never get to see. But how far can this go?
As an astronomer, I can take a long view. We know that the Sun will run out of its nuclear fuel in around five billion years from now, and that in its final death throws it will expand and evaporate the Earth. Maybe we will have developed space travel by then. Maybe in some far future there will be colonies round other stars where an inheritance from us still plays a role. But those stars themselves will also eventually run out of fuel and go dark. New stars and planets form, born out of the gas and dust in galaxies, so maybe we could move to these. There is an eternity of future time in our Universe, as it will expand forever rather than re-collapse. But its future is not the same as its past or present. In an infinitely expanding Universe eventually all the matter gets more and more spread out. The galaxies run out of gas from which to form new stars, and the old ones die out. Even black holes, a subject close to my own heart, will eventually evaporate, meaning that the last possible source of energy to sustain life is lost. Perhaps there can be multiple other Universes. But I think by now you get the picture. Our lives have no impact or influence against an eternity of time in a Universe of darkness.
But does the fate of the physical universe determine our ultimate destiny? I believe that if there is a God then our lives instead have eternal significance. It is universal in human cultures to wonder about the bigger picture, to wonder about the significance of our lives in the light of eternity. Bede, in his early Middle Ages text The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, talks of Christian missionaries coming to a pagan Anglo-Saxon community. They describe the fleetingness of life as like a swallow flying in through a Mead Hall window. The bird flies into the fire-light, only to fly out again through a window on the other side. The text reads:
“whilst he is within, he is safe from the wintry tempest,
but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes
out of sight, passing from winter to winter again. So man appears
on earth for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went
before we know nothing at all.”
Or in the language of the Bible in Ecclesiastes, “He has made all things beautiful in their time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
How do we fathom what our lives mean if the physical reality is not all there is? Jesus went into the desert knowing that his life was not ultimately defined by the physical universe, but in relation to his identity with God. And in the desert, in those forty days of fasting, I think he got to the point of knowing that his identity in God meant that he did indeed share in the power of the almighty eternal God. At any rate, that’s how I read the first two temptations ‘tell these stones to become bread, the devil says, and ‘throw yourself off the temple roof and have hosts of angels rescue you.’ These are not things that would tempt me, I know they are beyond my power. But he was tempted by them, because he’d got to the point of knowing it was within his power as someone who was fully human but whose essential identity was God.
But then the third one is even more direct, with the devil saying that he could give Jesus the world and everything it -every transiently beautiful thing. But Jesus knows that he is heir to both this world and to an eternal kingdom, so he walks away. He knew who he was, he knew his destiny, and this gave him the strength to turn away from the internal temptations we all face at the prospect of power. He weighed his life in the balance of eternity, and decided that his choices, his destiny, mattered on a much larger canvas than this physical Universe, however infinite it may be in either time or space.
It’s blossom time again in Japan, as our year here draws to an end. Not quite cherry yet, but early plum, holding out the promise of spring after the desert of winter. The idea that the transience of blossom adds to its beauty is something which is quite deeply embedded in Japanese culture. It’s here for just three weeks: one where it’s starting to come out, one where the trees are covered, and one as they fall. Frankly, I think I would have appreciated the beauty of the new satellite more if we’d had more than three weeks of its new data! But all things are fleeting. What matters is that we weigh our life in the balance of eternity, and know that with God our choices – our destiny -matters on a much larger canvas than this physical Universe, however infinite it may be in either time or space.
This reflection is the transcript of a Lent Talk on BBC Radio 4, on 9th April 2017.