Empty Space

I’m sitting here in an airport during one of those countless little bubbles in time where nothing big is going on. I’m between flights, having just arrived in Detroit from Seattle and (soon) heading out for Pellston, Michigan. So I’m taking this time to write a bit — and reflect on the empty space in our lives.

When you think about it, there’s an awful lot of empty space. When I was a new Christian, it bothered me that the theory of evolution, if true, meant God “wasted” 4.5 billion years on non-human-related projects like dinosaurs and trilobites. If man is His special darling, why spend 150 million years creating dinosaurs that no man will ever see and then let them all go extinct? Seems like a major waste of awesomeness, as well as a huge waste of space in the calendar.

 

But then, as I started thinking about it, I realized there are also great empty gaps in space as well as time. Here on earth, there are large portions of the surface covered by barren sand and even more barren ice. If you step back, for instance, about one light hour from Earth, what you notice is how little there is to notice. Our solar system, like the rest of the universe, has a lot of nothing between the occasional interesting spot. Oh, sure, there’s a lot of interesting activity on Mars, Io, Europa, and so forth. But there’s nobody there to be interested in it. It didn’t become interesting until the human mind got wind of it and took an interest.

So all the really interesting action in our solar system is crowded on our one little planet — Earth — because the only creatures (anywhere, so far as we know) with the capacity to say, “Gee! Mars, Io, and Europa are interesting!” have all made a habit of congregating on that one little planet. And, of course, our solar system is just a molecule compared to the Milky Way — and the Milky Way vanishes into invisibility among all the other grains of galactic dust if you pull the camera back far enough. Vast quantities of empty space only stop being about nothing when humans decide it’s about something. So, since humans will never be making the trip to a quasar at the edge of the universe, why does God lavish so much creative energy on it and all the trillions of other details we will never even be aware of?

 

The answer to the riddle of why God creates such unfathomable deeps of time and space is worth pondering. God, having created a universe that is billions of light years wide (distances we shall never visit), is likewise entitled to create deeps of time that don’t include us. He’s God, after all. Time and space are His to play around with as He pleases, and He doesn’t seem interested in efficiency. That’s because, as Robert Farrar Capon says, God has loves, not reasons. He creates messily, like an artist; not tidily, like an engineer.

Indeed, God seems to love what our efficient and tidy culture regards as wasted space and time. The universe has been around roughly 13.5 billion years. Our solar system was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago. That means the universe had already been around roughly twice as long as our solar system before our local history began. Most of the history of life on Earth was spent on things like bacteria and algae, with multi-celled critters only emerging relatively recently. Humans only come along a fraction of a second or so before midnight, if you compressed cosmic history to a day.

Similarly, in the long span of time we Homo sapiens have been around (roughly 200,000 years by best guesstimates), fully one third of that time has been spent with our entire race asleep eight hours out of each day. Very inefficient. Similarly, the history of Israel and God’s revelation to Abraham is just 4,000 years or so, starting from Abraham, leaving the other 196,000 or so years as a very long prologue. And though He could have cut to the chase and sent Jesus to redeem the world right after the Fall, the Father takes His sweet time and waits until what Paul calls “the fullness of time,” resulting in an Old Testament that spans roughly 2,000 years and a New Testament spanning roughly 60 years.

Now we live in another long pause between the first and second advents of Jesus. And all during that time, a lot of apparently unimportant stuff happens that only God notices. For every Caesar, Cleopatra, Napoleon, Thomas Edison, or Attila the Hun who blazes a fiery comet of fame and storied greatness across the firmament of history, there are millions and millions of anonymous people (chances are you and I are among them) who live and die and only God remembers them. A whole forest of leaves falls, and only one or two get saved in the scrapbook? What’s up with that?

 

As I contemplate this, I can’t help but think of the idea of the Sabbath. The book of Genesis describes creation in terms familiar to the thinking of ancient Israel. Despite the insistence of fundamentalists that we read it as a science text, that is not the purpose of the story. We moderns bring that assumption with us when we read about the creation of the sun, moon, stars, plants, birds, reptiles, and whatnot, because we have been taught since childhood to think scientifically about these things, so we assume the ancient inspired writer was trying to do zoology, botany, astronomy, and so forth.

But in fact, what the liturgical mind of the ancient writer is doing is portraying the creation of the world in liturgical terms. God methodically builds the temple of creation and readies it for what an ancient Near Easterner always found in the Holy of Holies of a Temple: the image and likeness of the god. Only in this case, it is God who is fashioning the image from clay, and the Image is Man and Woman. The story is not science but a subversive and brilliantly creative depiction of the truth about us that satirizes the idols of the nations around Israel. For, of course, each of the creatures mentioned by the Creation story is worshipped as a rival god by these nations.

What Genesis tells us is not the easy falsehood that God alone is good and all the creatures are evil (a mistake that would be made by the Gnostics much later), but the subtle truth that all creatures are good and owe their goodness to their good Creator. More than this, what Genesis will state is the simple truth that the whole temple and edifice of creation was made by God for our sake. All the empty spaces in space and time were there, ultimately, for our good. The vast forests of the Carboniferous period rose and fell for our sake. Stars exploded and made heavy elements 6 billion years ago so that we might have bodies of carbon and other such elements. Comets hit the nascent Earth and created the oceans so that we might have water in our blood and in our baptismal fonts.

All was for us, even if we don’t understand how. And we matter because God has chosen to love us and become one of us, not as a superstar, but as a completely anonymous manual laborer executed by a minor functionary in some forgotten corner of the world, far from Rome, Athens, or Alexandria. He who is most fully the image of the invisible God (Heb 1:4) chose to become, ironically, almost completely invisible, along with all the other forgotten souls who have sweated and died with nobody to notice or care. He launched himself straight into the great empty space and filled it with Himself, to ensure that we would find Him not on the glittering heights of fame and power, but in the places where nobody looks, the neglected places, where nothing important seems to be going on: the places without headlines or TV cameras rolling.

 

That is why Hebrews will go on and make clear that Jesus is the Sabbath. For the point of the Sabbath is that it is the day where nothing happens, earthly speaking. It is an empty space in time, just as the Temple was an empty space in space — dedicated to God. God builds right into His covenant a big empty space: a day where man and woman cannot work so they cannot boast when God does wonders. It is on this day that Jesus goes into the depth of the earth to accomplish what we cannot: the destruction of death and breaking the bars of Sheol. It is likewise in the empty places of our lives that He will ever after come to us and speak in His still small voice. While the devil will continue to own the television networks, giant film conglomerates, radio networks, and editorial offices, blaring hell’s propaganda 24/7, it will be in the interstices and empty places that Jesus will continue to speak.

That’s why, for the life of me (and most likely of you), we cannot remember what the great loud blaring world regarded as the top headline of March 18, 1997, nor of the vast majority of days before or since. The world trades in ephemera. But I remember it like yesterday, because it was the day God spoke to me once again in earth-shaking love by bringing my youngest son Sean into the world and telling me once again, and in no uncertain terms, that He rejoices in the love He bears us. It was an event that went unheralded in the corridors of power in D.C., NY, and LA. No historian recorded it. But in my ears it was an event as wonderful as the Creation of the World, as was the birth of each of my children.

What the headlines were on their birthdays, I could not tell you at gunpoint. Nothing “important” happened that day in the reckoning of this world. But in the reckoning of heaven, something apocalyptic occurred: A human being who shares the same human nature as the Son of the Living God was born, and another immense sign of love was given to the world, filling once again a space that was once empty with a human life made for the kingdom of God.

Thank you, Lord, for filling the empty spaces, big and small, in this world.

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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