In the winter of 1990, the NASA space probe Voyager 1 had traveled to the outer reaches of our solar system, collecting data and images of neighboring planets since its launch in 1977. As it hurtled ever farther outward into the vastness of space, the probe’s capacity to take photographs was nearing its end. But before its camera was shut off, engineers turned the probe around to capture a final image facing back in the direction whence it had come, back toward earth.
Perhaps you have seen or heard of this now-famous photo, popularly nicknamed the “pale blue dot.” If not, I encourage you to look it up. At first glance, it appears to just be a picture of a broad, shadowy emptiness, pierced by a few pale bands of light resulting from the reflection of the sun in the camera lens.
But if you look closely, very closely, you notice in the middle of one of those bands of light a tiny speck: soft blue, unremarkable, and yet shockingly singular, reposing in solitude amid the immense darkness.
That speck is us—it is planet earth, viewed from 4 billion miles away.
This tiny dot in a photograph, so small you might miss it, reveals the humble totality of the world we know, suspended in the midst of something so large we cannot comprehend it. As the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote of the image a few years after it was captured, the pale blue dot contains:
“every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, 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…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Faced with such an image, we are offered a bracing new perspective on the sum total of our struggles and strivings. They tend to appear a bit less momentous at this distance.
In the same way that we might go to a mountain top or to an ocean vista in order to gain a sense of our place within the larger landscape of creation, discovering our smallness on the pale blue dot offers both clarity and mystery.
Clarity, because we suddenly comprehend both the fragility and the preciousness of this home we have been given. Mystery, because the created order and the God who bestowed it are revealed as so truly vast that, to paraphrase the Psalmist, “it is too wonderful for us…we cannot attain unto it.”
Seeing ourselves from this vantage point invites us into a sense of gratitude and awe that we might miss in the inevitable, persistent anxieties of life viewed at ground level, when it sometimes feels like our lives will be defined by the jumbled detritus of our daily concerns: a stack of receipts, a beeping alarm clock, an unanswered email.
But within this tension of competing perspectives—the mundane and the magnificent—in which we often struggle to see the forest for the trees: it is here that Jesus steps into our path. He, the Incarnate Son of God, brings together, within his very self, the inscrutable mystery of the cosmos AND the simple dignity of our daily endeavors to get by as best we can.
He sees us from both vantage points. He loves us from both vantage points. And he invites us to share in his dual vision, to see the world as God sees it—with a gaze that is both attentive to the immediate moment AND understanding of its place in a broader story of creation, redemption, and reunion.
This dual vision, I think, is what the tenth leper demonstrates for us in today’s Gospel. His turning back and praising God illustrates an additional layer of perception more than anything else. A capacity for recognizing what is really going on.
So we don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of energy pointing fingers at the nine other lepers for failing to demonstrate sufficient gratitude, as if Jesus were chiding them like a 1st century version of Miss Manners demanding a thank you note. Those nine have been through a lot. We will send them on their way without judgment.
ALL of the lepers recognize Jesus as Master, and all call out to him, and all are healed. The nine who go directly to the priests, as Jesus instructs, receive no less of a blessing; they will present themselves in their places of worship and, we imagine, they will be restored into the communities from which, as lepers, they have been estranged as social outcasts.
But the tenth leper, the Samaritan, offers us an additional gift. He understands that what has just happened is far more significant than the provision of his own immediate relief, his own private healing. Perhaps because he is a despised Samaritan as well as a leper—and is thus one who inhabits the periphery of the periphery—he has a broader, more insightful perspective. People at the margins often do.
This tenth leper realizes that what Jesus has done for him is indicative of what God is doing more generally—that his healing in fact reveals the abundantly loving, restoring, life-giving nature of the God who desires to heal all people and all things. This is why he is compelled to come back and prostrate himself in gratitude.
In Jesus he has beheld not just a holy man, a miracle worker, but the fullness of God’s mercy in human form, the vastness of God’s concern contained in the voice of a single man.
Thus the healed leper understands that his individual story has been caught up in something so big, so wonderful, so mystifying, that he must fall down and cling to the earth and cry out in thanksgiving. It is, we might say, his glimpse of the pale blue dot reflected in the eyes of Christ: both the immensity and the intimacy of God’s love in a single flash of understanding.
And so Jesus says to him, “your faith has made you well.” It is the deep wellness of knowing God for who God is.
And friends, is that not why we are here, too, kneeling before our Lord, to give thanks for the goodness that we have seen in Him? To be made well in the knowledge and love of God?
We are always in need of that dual perspective—to understand, like the healed leper, that God sees us and loves us in our particularity, and to also know that each of us is part of something so much greater, so much more beautiful, than we can possibly imagine.
This is why we unite our hearts and our voices in liturgy—to assert our brief but nonetheless essential role in the eternal praise of God that echoes out into the deep.
To step back and see ourselves as part of that pale blue dot, a beloved jewel nestled in the velvety darkness of a universe that God has made and called good.
And then, as a people healed and made new in Christ, to step forward into our lives, to examine the beautiful, earthy blessedness of our days, and to sing out in gratitude that even in our smallness, we are known and loved and forgiven. To be bearers of the holy vision that gazes tenderly on all that has ever been and all that will ever be.
By the way: that space probe, Voyager 1, is still traveling farther out into space. It is predicted that in 300 years it will enter the outermost edges of our solar system, and in 30,000 years, it will reach interstellar space. Beyond that, who knows?
But what I find especially remarkable, what I find truly “too wonderful for us” to imagine or attain, is that no matter how far that Voyager goes, no matter how long it wanders in the silent darkness, it will never, ever reach a point that is beyond the scope of God’s presence. It will never, ever truly be lost.
The same, I think, can be said for us.