If you went to school sometime between the 1930s and 2006, then you learned the planets of our solar system were Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. If you learned about them in elementary school, then there is a good chance you learned some mnemonic device to help you remember their order. For me it was, “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”.
Then… in 2006… something terrible happened… THEY TOOK AWAY THE PIZZAS!! Now my mother serves noodles? Who would choose noodles over pizza?!
Okay, so they weren’t real pizzas, but in 2006, the International Astronomical Union downgraded the status of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. Pluto was the smallest and had a few things different about it. It was a misfit, but it was our misfit. Many of us were very upset when it was taken from us. For us, in our hearts, Pluto would always be a planet.
So why did the IAU make this change? Many who don’t know, just assumed it was too small, but when deciding on classifications, scientists specifically stayed away from size measurements like mass/diameter/etc. because it can be so arbitrary where you draw that line. Instead they decided on the classifications to be named a planet as follows: 1) Orbit the Sun, 2) assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), 3) “clear the neighborhood” around its orbit. Pluto failed the 3rd requirement. In 1992, what would become 1000s of objects besides Pluto began to be discovered out past Neptune. This area of objects became known as the Kuiper Belt (all the green dots).
Because Pluto was unable to either suck these other objects into its gravitational pull or push them far away, it was deemed unable to “clear the neighborhood”. There are a couple of other large round objects past Neptune that have been discovered and deemed “dwarf planets” for the same reason. Through no fault of its own, just some scientists making up rules, Pluto was stripped of the title of planet and the respect it previously had.
In the 2nd reading this coming Sunday, the letter to the Hebrews says, “we have been consecrated
through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Pluto was stripped of its title as planet, but we can never be stripped of our title of child of God. Christ came and offered His body as sacrifice once so that each of us could be saved. That means every person on Earth deserves respect, deserves to be treated with dignity. The scientists judged Pluto by its intrinsic qualities and what it had done. We can not have this sort of judgement on people.
As this is the final week of Advent, the final two corporal works of mercy come to mind: Visit the Sick and Visit the Imprisoned.
Both of these groups of people are often forgotten and tossed aside. The first because they are difficult to be around. Often it brings us down to be near someone who is suffering so we choose to ignore them and leave them to their suffering in isolation. The second group we leave out because we think their actions have disqualified them from being deserving of our time and our love. It doesn’t matter what action got them imprisoned, Christ died for each of them too. We should act accordingly.
Both of these groups are often in desperate need of human interaction, exactly why Christ points out this need to visit them and calls us to do so. It sounds simple enough, but there are lots of ways we can visit them, show them we care by spending time with/on them. First, the sick, if you personally know someone who is sick, I encourage you to visit them. Maybe you could make them a home cooked meal and eat it with them. Sometimes, though, the sick in our lives are far away, or due to the pandemic we are physically unable to visit them. In those cases, we can still spend some time with them through a phone call or a zoom call. Visiting these people isn’t about physical closeness, it’s about reminding them of their dignity and that they are loved. Finally, even if you don’t know someone personally who is sick, consider writing letters or Christmas cards to send to nursing homes or hospitals reminding them that they are loved. Being alone in a hospital during the holidays can be very depressing and gives us the opportunity to be the light of Christ to these individuals. This is something you can even get your kids involved with!
The next group Christ mentions is the imprisoned. If you know someone in prison, make the effort and visit them. Remind them that no matter what they did, they’re not alone. If you don’t know anyone personally, see if there’s a program at your church or in your diocese for prison ministry. Oftentimes you can help organize retreats for inmates or find other ways to bring Christ to them. Pray about whether that would be a good fit for you. If it’s not, something we can all do is write letters to the men and women who are on death row. Of all those in prison, this can be the scariest and the loneliest, knowing that there is a date set for the end of your life, that people wish you to die. These men and women especially need to be reminded that they are loved by God, that they are still children of God. Write them a letter letting them know that. You may not be able to visit them in person, but you can let them know that you are walking with them in this journey.
Jesus calls us to visit the sick and the imprisoned, we cannot let a diagnosis or a conviction prevent us from seeing people as children of God in need of love. There is nothing that can take that title away.