Christians are not blind or deaf or insensible to misery. There is much brokenness in this world. It deeply touches Christians too. But, we still make a radical declaration: “It is possible to believe that a sovereign God somehow filters all of these evils through his loving and just hands – his nail pierced hands.
Some said it was nearly a disaster. One of the early hot air balloonists, French inventor, 30-year-old Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753 – 1809) scheduled a balloon flight in Paris, March 2, 1784. His co-pilot was a priest, Pesch. However, a certain swashbuckling scoundrel, Dupont de Chambon, demanded to accompany them. When Blanchard and Pesch pushed Dupont back from the basket, Dupont leapt in, drew his sword, wounded Blanchard in his left hand and damaged some of the equipment. The police subdued Dupont. In short order, Blanchard’s wound was wrapped and the repairs to the balloon were made. Blanchard took off alone. Unexpectedly – some would say ‘unluckily’- wind pushed the balloon across the River Seine.
But then, another wind arose and pushed the balloon back again – round trip, 75 minutes! As his motto, Blanchard optimistically chose a Latin phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid: Sic itur ad astra – “Thus you shall go to the stars” – like our: To infinity and beyond!”
On the other hand, the first century Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, counseled: Non est ad astra mollis e terris via – “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.”
Blanchard also understood such counsel. Although another inventor devised the parachute, in 1784, Blanchard coined its name from para- “defense against” + chute “a fall.” Blanchard’s first parachute demonstrations were conducted with a dog as the parachutist. But, in 1793, when his hot air balloon ruptured, Blanchard strapped the parachute on himself and leapt from the balloon. He escaped calamity.
In 1804, at 51, Jean-Pierre married 26-year-old Sophie. Then, in 1808, while up in his balloon, Blanchard suffered a heart attack and fell. Severe injuries eventually led to his death. Despite knowing the hazards, Sophie continued to support herself with ballooning shows. In Paris, on her 67th ascent, July 6, 1819, she launched fireworks that ignited the gas in her balloon. Disastrously, her craft crashed on the roof of a house and she fell to her death. She was 41. How sad.
Note, this remarkable history uses four of the words we often use to describe our fallen world: disaster, calamity, unlucky, and hazard.
“Disaster” comes to us from Latin - disastro – “ill-starred,” from dis – indicating privation, “lack of, away from” + astro “star, planet,” (note: astra is used in the Latin quotes above by Virgil and Seneca the Younger). And the Latin comes from Greek – astron “star.” In astrology a calamity is blamed upon an unfavorable position of a planet or star in the zodiac. In such a fateful world, horoscopes become vital.
“Calamity” comes from Latin – calamitatem – “damage, loss, failure; disaster, misfortune, adversity.” Beyond that, the origin of calamity is obscure. As with any word whose origin is uncertain, we wonder: “Was that origin unspeakable, simply unknown or was it too common to note?”
The Germans give us “unlucky” – unluckich. And they, in turn, picked up the “lucky” part of the word from an early Middle Dutch word – luc – a shortening of gheluc – “happiness, good fortune.” Once again, we are told this word is of unknown origin.
“Hazard” has an interesting story. It comes from Old French – hasard (12th century) – “game of chance played with dice.” Possibly this is from Spanish – azar – “an unfortunate card or throw at dice,” which may be from Arabic az-zahr - “the die.” But zahr is not found in classical Arabic dictionaries. However, the Arabic word yasara – “he played at dice” – is a possibility. “Haphazard” intensifies our word by adding hap – “chance” to an already “dicey” word.
The origins of disaster, calamity, unlucky and hazard show us that these four words strip meaning and personality from life – substituting chance and fate. And they do so at a time when life is particularly hard. Ouch!
What is at the core of our universe? “Universe” comes from the Latin – uni - “one” + either versus “to turn” or verus “true.” Christians believe that life is more than the result of a random turning of mass and energy; we have more than an impersonal “cold, cruel world.” Life comes from the True Source – The True Person – God himself. We believe the better question is: “Who is at the core of our universe?”
Believing that, we ask: “Has God wound up the universe and let it spin?” Not according to Biblical evidence. “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (Isaiah 40:26). With such a God, literally there is no “disaster” – no “unlucky” movement of the stars. None.
And there is more than the denial of “dis-aster.” Jesus tells us we have a Father in heaven. Despite the mess we see in this world, the Person gets the final word – not the heartless anonymity of some maverick molecule or rogue star. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Mt 10:29-31).
Really? It sounds heartless to tell to Japanese who saw the tsunami inundate their coastal cities and villages with horrible flooding: “This was no disaster.” But, if God is in charge and this is not some mechanistic universe – earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and cyclones are not “disasters” – nor are stampedes, fires, industrial accidents, oil spills and nuclear explosions/radiation – to say nothing of debilitating birth defects, disease and death. They are brutal evidence of the Fall. Our world is not as God created it to be.
Christians are not blind or deaf or insensible to misery. There is much brokenness in this world. It deeply touches Christians too. But, we still make a radical declaration: “It is possible to believe that a sovereign God somehow filters all of these evils through his loving and just hands – his nail pierced hands – in such a way that someday we will whole-heartedly sing: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created” (Revelation 4:11).
We understand that: “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.” But, we add: “Nor was there an easy way from the stars to the earth.” Jesus’ incarnation shows us that at the center of our universe is The Person. He is also the Star. Can we join these two – Person/Star – together in a way that goes beyond idolizing Hollywood entertainment personalities? Could a Person be a mega source of revitalizing light and eternal energy – a Star who personally reconnects us with God? Whether or not we can make this connection, God has united Star and Person in Christ.
There have been attempts by imposters to rob him of his glory.
- Satan – How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn!” (Isaiah 14:12).
- Our idols – You have lifted up…the star of your god — which you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:26).
Still the ancient prophecy connected Star and Person: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). Eventually, from afar came those who asked: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).
Because there is no easy way for this One who came so far to join us, because he knew he had to be touched profoundly with Suffering – on the cross he was piercedfor our transgressions, he was crushedfor our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). Isaiah continues his prophecy: After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied (53:11). Despite all the darkness of our world, that “Light of life” still shines. “I, Jesus,…am the bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16).
Wherever we are, let’s praise the name of the LORD. “Thus you shall go to the stars” is fulfilled through Jesus.
Steve Bostrom, a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, lives in Helena, MT, and regularly writes “Essays into the Lively Lexicon” in which he explores the meaning of words to guide us along in life. If you would like to receive these essays, you can contact Steve directly.