Awe and Wonder

Easter 3B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Jesus showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” (Luke 24:40-41). You and I are two weeks from Easter Sunday, but in today’s gospel, it’s only been a few hours for these startled disciples.

Early that morning the women discovered the empty tomb. They became the first to share the good news: Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia). They are the apostles to the apostles, but Peter and the small band of Jesus-followers dismissed their story as an idle tale.

That same day, the risen Christ walked beside two of them as they headed home from Jerusalem in defeat.  In their grief and fear, they don’t recognize him on the road to Emmaus. Yet, rather than recrimination, Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  They finally recognized him as he broke the bread at supper and disappeared.  They hurry back to Jerusalem only to discover that Jesus had also appeared to Peter. Peter had finally convinced them all. Jesus was indeed alive!

This is moment we join the story in today’s gospel. The disciples are excitedly talking about all these things when Jesus appears and says, “Sorry, did I scare you? Peace be with you.” He showed them his wounds. He invited them to touch him. He rummaged for food, found a piece of broiled fish, and ate it. Our gospel records this incredible line. In their joy, the disciples were “disbelieving and still wondering.” They are awestruck. Wonder, fear, joy, and amazement are all wrapped together.

It is striking to me, how much we’re like those first disciples. Here we are gathered on the Lord’s Day. Yet don’t we also wonder about the things we’ve heard, and wrestle with the question of the resurrection? Can anything so amazing and awe-some be real?

This week provided us a good test case.  How many of you saw the solar eclipse on Monday?  Did you, like me, drive somewhere to see it?  In the US, an estimated 32 million people live within the path of totality. Yes. I’m here to say, totality is totally different than a partial eclipse. The temperature dropped 20 degrees. I could see planets and stars. Sunset colors adorned in the sky.  A ring of fire encircled the moon. Brilliant red spots called solar prominences flickered from periphery of the moon. Everything happened precisely as scientifically predicted, yet, the eclipse still provokes wonder, joy, amazement, and even a little terror. As the sun disappeared behind the moon one nearby stranger said to me, what if it doesn’t come back?

A solar eclipse that coincided with the death of England’s King Henry I in 1133 was provoked by chaos and civil war. An eclipse in Turkey in 585 B.C. had the opposite effect. Warring armies took it as a sign from the gods that there should be peace. Fifteen years of fighting came to a sudden end. Steve Ruskin, a historian of astronomy, observes “What I find most amazing, having studied eclipses throughout history, is that no matter the time period or the scientific knowledge (or lack thereof), human responses to an eclipse are consistently, universally, expressions of awe and wonder, and even fear and terror.”

Searching for proof of the resurrection, perhaps we have been asking the wrong questions. Resurrection is not only about what did or did not happen to Jesus’s body.  The Christian claim has always been far more radical. Resurrection is what happens within and among our bodies. The Christian claim is that Christ is incarnate within and among us—already— at the table and in the font and through the living Word even as we wait for Christ to be fully revealed. This claim can be tested. You can search yourself for tangible evidence. I propose the universal mammalian experience of awe and wonder is a key that connects us to the disciples, and to eclipse-seekers, and to the daily reality and possibility of resurrection.

The solar eclipse is not a rare event. It turns it happens somewhere in the world every 18 months. Likewise, awe and wonder are not a rare but, potentially, a daily, even hourly reality. Dacher Keltner, a Mexican-born American professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, is turning up startling research on the power of awe that sounds a lot like the resurrected life we are offered today.

According to Dacher, “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”  Experiences we might call spiritual are now being taken seriously by science as intelligence — as elements of human wholeness.  Most surprising, they say, such moments of awe and wonder which stretch imagination beyond our understanding are common in human life, and, presumably, to all mammals. Everywhere around the globe awe is measurably health-giving, immunity-boosting, creativity enhancing, and community building. Feelings of wonder bring our nervous system and heartbeat and breath into sync. Shared experiences of awe bring our bodies into sync with other bodies around us.’ (Krista Tippet, “The Thrilling New Science of Awe,” On Being, 2/03/23)

More specifically, the experience of awe and wonder centers in the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve has been called “the love nerve and the caretaking nerve” in your body. It is one of the great mind-body-spirit connections in the human nervous system. Vagus, v-a-g-u-s, not v-e-g-a-s, is the Latin word for wandering. The vagus nerve connects your mind, your gaze, your heart, your liver, and spleen. It interacts with nearly every organ system in the body. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in the vagus nerve connects us with the universe.

There were about 120 Jesus-followers that first Easter day—wide-eyed, their mouths open. Like them, because Christ endured all the violence and rejection that can be wrought from human hands and did not reject us, we are a community fueled by joy. Because the resurrected Christ was wounded and hungry, we are a community grounded in loving and serving human bodies. We do not deny the reality of human suffering. We are not embarrassed, nor do we apologize for our frailty and mortality, yet now, because we are joined to the undying life, we are not afraid to live life to its fullest.

We dwell in the resurrected Christ by drawing wonder and awe around us like a blanket. Just in pausing to take in the beauty of the natural world, or through exercise, or meditation, or by practicing our faith together here each week in Word and Sacrament, we open ourselves to greater awe and wonder. We open ourselves to greater love, to the way of the cross, and to the resurrected life. We are witnesses of these things. We have seen with our own eyes. We have felt it within our heart.  We know it in our gut. We are alive together in Christ.  Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)