Pi-Day and the domesticated infinity
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 14th: Genesis 29:1-14; Psalm 81; and 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is March 14th, or as it is sometimes rendered 3-14, and because of this rendering March 14th is also known sometimes as Pi Day. Pi is the Greek letter π and it is used as the mathematical symbol for the value of the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Curved surfaces were a mathematical minefield that calculus finally tamed in the 17th century, but π was discovered some 23 hundred years ago by the Greek mathematician Archimedes. He defined π by the ingenious innovation of breaking down the curvature of a circle into straight line segments. The shorter the lines meant more lines. This gave Archimedes the approximate value of π as 3.14, and thus today’s Π Day.
And the word approximate is essential because no matter how small the straight line segments become no amount of straight lines will ever be small enough to define exactly the curve of a circle. The approximation can be extremely precise, but it can never be exact. Computers have calculated the value of π out to 22 trillion digits and counting, and out to the 22 trillionth decimal the sequence of digits never repeats and never betrays any pattern. It goes on forever; it reflects infinity.
In this sense, π is the domestication of infinity. You see this image of a circle "0". What could be more ordinary? Children before pre-school draw circles. But that image of a circle is an image of infinity. 22 trillion line segments and counting cannot determine the exact value of π. It could go up to 44 trillion line segments and it will remain an approximation. There are by definition an infinite number of straight lines that can be drawn, but they will always be infinitesimally small but still straight lines. The curve of the circle defies them all. Π is domesticated infinity and yet here it is "0" right in front of us.
We often speak of God in the language of the infinite. We define God as eternal, as a timelessness beyond time. We characterize God as all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present, or more formally as omnipotent, omniscient and ubiquitous. And whatever these definitions may mean to you, to anyone, they are by necessity approximations. They are words bound by the finite of our own minds that are trying to capture the infinite of God. They are our linguistic straight-line segments to God’s circle.
But we should not forget that those 22 trillion and counting approximations of the value of π are forever unreachable, but here it is "0": the circle a pre-pre-schooler can draw. I think this reminds us that we need not define God; we need to accept God. I cannot imagine in my mind 22 trillion decimals, but I can grasp even more in the "0". I cannot define exactly the circle, but I can relate to it. Our God may be infinite, but more importantly our God is personal, relatable, approachable, and no more so than in Jesus of Nazareth. On Palm Sunday, at the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ Passion, we will read the biblical passage that Jesus empties Himself of overt divinity. Jesus becomes us, in other words. Jesus is God incarnate. Jesus is God’s perfect "0". And as Jesus goes to the cross and to His suffering death, Jesus reveals a remarkable divine love for us, an ineffable love, an infinite love, and just as plain as the circle is so is this domesticated infinite of the cross.
During Lent we are blessed with the chance to touch the infinite, but will we? In today’s Psalm are the tragic words of Yahweh: “I hear a voice I had not known.” God laments the fact that the people no longer call upon Him. Their voice is unknown. It is a stranger’s voice to God. May we not repeat this most unfortunate occurrence. May the infinite love of Christ made so real on Golgotha draw us into a closer and more personal relationship through Him with God.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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