The Voyager spacecraft traveled through space at 40,000 miles per hour. It was designed to take photographs at the farthest reaches of our solar system. And in 1990, the craft was instructed to turn and take one final image of the earth. There, across a distance of nearly 4 billion miles, the earth appeared as little more than a pale blue dot surrounded by a vast and incomprehensible cosmic ocean. Carl Sagan, one of the scientists associated with the project, would later comment:
“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves…” (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, p. 6-7)
God, speaking through His prophet Isaiah said that “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) The cosmological distance between earth and the farthest reaches of space is equal to the ontological distance between man and Creator.
Science now tells us that the universe is something like 156 billion light years in diameter. And in that incomprehensible void, the earth hovers in solitary stillness.
If we are to listen to Sagan, we are to believe that man is at the mercy of his own insignificance, possessing no hope, or “hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
But it is across this impossible distance that God steps into the breach of time and space. The prophet Isaiah said,
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
We know that “in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son…that we might receive the adoption of sons (Gal 4:4-5).” Those “who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2).”
Theology draws from these and other texts to breathe the word incarnation – a word used to describe the act of God putting on human skin, an event we celebrate each year at Christmas.
And so the first and greatest mystery of the incarnation is that a God of such magnitude would see fit to step across this cosmic void, to be humbly found lying in a feeding trough of a lowly town of Bethlehem.
In his book Life After God, author Douglas Coupland remarks, “Sometimes I think the people to feel saddest for are people who once knew what profoundness was, but became lost or numb to the sensation of wonder.”
The incarnation sensitizes us to wonder, for within this doctrine we find the answer to all the deepest mysteries of the human heart, wrapped in “swaddling clothes” in a lowly manger.
Isaiah would speak of the titles that would ultimately come to be associated with the person of Jesus: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) These were all names that, in the ancient world, carried royal, even military connotation. The arrival of Jesus came as a shocking blow to the darkness of the present world, and offers us a glimpse of the sonship offered us in the next.
And so this Holiday, we are reminded of the great mystery of the incarnation, a secret whispered by the prophets of old, and shouted from the rooftops at the Savior’s arrival.
Across this great distance, He has found us.
This post features content originally delivered to the Real Life college group at Trinity Bible Church of Richardson, TX.