That story began when I was seven years old – or forty years ago, if you prefer to put it that way. Two man-made spacecrafts were launched into space in the August and September of 1977. Perhaps you may remember the old Mini Cooper – that’s one of those was roughly the weight and size of each spacecraft. Yet these two spacecrafts were sent out on a seemingly impossible mission – to fly past the outer planets of our solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and beyond. Thirty-five years after its launch, Voyager 1 officially left our solar system and headed towards its next big encounter that will take place in 40,000 years’ time. Then it’ll come within 1.7 light-years of the star AC +79 3888. The spacecraft carries a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disk, containing a message, in case extraterrestrials might be wondering where the spacecraft came from. What a massive achievement for something of such humble origins.
‘Jesus said to [Simon and Andrew]: Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. And at once they left their nets and followed him.’ Such a call was then directed at two other brothers, James and John, who responded in the same way as Simon and Andrew. Did they know that their decision would set them on a trajectory that would lead them far beyond what they could predict or even imagine? I doubt it. All four of them proved many times over their misunderstanding of Jesus and his mission; the mission they were to carry out. The scale of that mission became frighteningly obvious to them when Jesus announced just before his return to the Father: ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). Four men from the derided region of Palestine, itself the far-flung and virtually forsaken corner of the Roman Empire, were set to overrun it and to go way beyond its borders. The challenge set for them seemed to be a ‘mission impossible’. So, they set out to fulfil it; and what they started, their successors have achieved. Their message about Jesus eventually reached the most distant of places and peoples that the Apostles would have considered alien and strange.
The ethical, moral, cultural and social challenges that faith in Jesus sets for you and me often seem overwhelming and impossible for us to achieve. Sometimes we find ourselves too imperfect, too weak or too scared to live out our faith, not to mention sharing it with anybody else. We aren’t saintly, so we’d better keep quiet and get on with doing our own thing quietly. That’s wrong. Being a Christian doesn’t mean being perfect, impeccable in our words and deeds – that would be impossible. The way of being a Christian is summed up concisely in today gospel: ‘Repent and believe the Good News.’ Before you switch off completely because of that guilt-inducing call for repentance, let me try to explain it. The English translation of the original Greek word metanoia as “repentance” is far too narrow and therefore misleading. Repentance as such can be a launch-pad for a lifetime’s journey into an exciting unknown. Undertaking that journey requires the attitude described as metanoia. I think the journey of the aforementioned spacecraft, Voyager 1, can go some way towards helping us to understand that attitude.
The spacecraft has travelled a distance so huge that it defies human imagination, yet it was equipped with very little fuel onboard. What propels it then? The Voyager missions were intended to take advantage of a special alignment of the outer planets that occurs only every 176 years. It would allow a spacecraft to slingshot from one planet to the next, assisted by the first planet’s gravity. Each close planetary encounter accelerated Voyager 1 towards its next target. The craft’s onboard instruments and communication gear are powered by radioactive batteries. The fuel on board the craft was used only for making tiny corrections to its course. How is this analogy applicable to your life? Your life is made up of a chain of events and encounters. These might seem accidental; sometimes fortunate, sometimes less so. Nevertheless, they propel you towards another event, another encounter. Powers beyond your control are at work here. But on that journey through life you can make tiny corrections or amendments to your course of travel, so that the next event or encounter comes not as a crash but as an accelerator. Those tiny corrections and changes are the metanoia. Today’s call by Jesus to ‘repent’ isn’t a call to make a 180 degree turn in the direction of your travel. It’s a call to make adjustments in order to maintain the right direction you have been travelling in all those years. Your spiritual onboard instruments and communication gear are powered by the Source that never expires, the food everlasting that you will receive in Holy Communion: Jesus himself.
Photo from phys.org