The Year of our Lord 2013 has begun in earnest. As of today, the Christmas season has ended, and we can set our sights ahead into this new year. But before we do, it’s worthwhile to reflect upon some of the important events that occurred in the Year of our Lord 2012. As I said on Christmas Eve, we barely averted the Mayan apocalypse. We did careen over a fiscal cliff…or at least skidded down it a bit. We endured a very long and exhausting presidential campaign, which ended either in great consternation or great joy, depending upon your point of view. We celebrated a fantastic summer Olympic Games. We sweltered without power after the derecho. We paused in shock at occurrences including the Penn State scandal, Hurricane Sandy, and finally the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. After such events, our lives will never be the same.
All of these were notable, some for good and others for disastrous reasons. But none has more potential for long-term impact than the headline story all over the world on July 5, 2012. On that day newspapers and cable channels announced that physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research had finally, definitively discovered the “God particle.”[i]
In college I was a philosophy and religion major. I loved the passion of the religion department, but I equally appreciated the dogged rigor of the philosophers. With set jaws and steely eyes, they probed as deeply as the human mind can probe the fundamental questions of the universe. I especially loved philosophers like Hegel who, while crazy difficult to read, proposed total systems of understanding, leaving nothing out. There is something elegant and satisfying about the “grand theory of everything.” I have always wanted to know the Truth with a capital “T”. I’ve always desired knowledge about the things that hold the world together and give it purpose and meaning.
It wasn’t long into my first philosophy course when I learned that once-upon-a-time physics was simply a branch of philosophy. That realization made perfect sense. The physicists, too, seek to understand the underpinning of things. They, too, ask the deepest questions. In fact, at some point along the way modern philosophers became sidetracked with (in my opinion, at least) silly questions and ceded the essential questions to the physicists. It is the physicists who insistently peel back the layers of the world to discover what lies beneath. And in so doing, they reveal to us dimensions that sometimes seem fantastic and surreal.
For instance, there is, right here and right now—around and within each of us—another world, populated not only by molecules and atoms, but by things that even atoms dwarf. It is a world of quarks and bosons (bo-zens). It is a world governed by the strong force and the weak force. It is the world explored by those physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research. Theirs is practical in addition to theoretical physics. With their Large Hadron Collider, these men and women actually smash protons together at nearly the speed of light. The collisions occur with such force that the protons splinter into their component parts, allowing physicists to see the very basic building blocks of the cosmos. Because their work is mysterious to folks like you and me, it frightens many people. Indeed, in the weeks before their Large Hadron Collider fired up for the first time in 2008, there was a crescendo of panic that its proton-smashing might create a black hole that would swallow the earth.[ii]
Lucky for us, that didn’t happen. But what did happen at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012 was the discovery of the God particle. In laymen’s terms, the God particle is a subatomic bit that draws other particles to itself, causing them to cohere and have mass. Without it, there would be nothing tangible in the universe. All would be merely ether. It is, in other words, the basic property of creation, that through which all things are made: you, me, the tree, the rock, the supernova. On this tiniest and simplest thing, all else hinges.
You can see how it got its nickname. The God particle’s proper name is the “Higgs boson,” and scientists had been searching for it for fifty years. Without the Higgs, physics had a big hole in it. Physics’ model of the universe was a hope, but it was not a hope realized. Until the Higgs was found, physics’ house of cards might’ve fallen. And so, the wise men of physics were constantly on the lookout for the Higgs at its rising. They needed it as a lodestar to guide them to the truth.
On Epiphany we read about another guiding star. Magi—wise men, philosophers, we might say the physicists of their day—ardently seek the Truth. They wish to plumb the depths of mystery and understand the essential workings of the world. So they follow the lodestar at its rising, wherever it may lead. On their quest, politics attempts to co-opt them (as politics today often tries to co-opt scientists). King Herod seeks to influence the magi for his own ends, but these are seekers of truth, and honest truth-seekers will not be used and will not be influenced, no matter what pressure is brought to bear upon them.
The magi continue to follow the lodestar, which draws them as a force toward Bethlehem. The star beckons and lures until it stops over the place where lies a child. These wise men from the east are learned. They already have a healthy and potent sense of how the cosmos works. They already hold a fair portion of the truth. But until this encounter, there is a hole in their model of reality. Their house of cards could fall.
Until now, when in this child the wise men discover the heart of the world, the essence, purpose, and meaning of creation. In this child they see, in the words of St. Paul read on Epiphany Day, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” As they gaze at Jesus, the magi realize, as Paul says elsewhere, “all things have been created in him and through him…and in him all things hold together.”[iii] In this tiny and simple child, all else hinges.
Matthew’s account of the magi shares with us the fact of this discovery. But we also receive on Epiphany the content of the meaning and purpose Jesus embodies at the heart of all things. On Epiphany Day many churches will recite the Third Song of Isaiah, known in Latin as Surge, illuminare. In it, the Prophet speaks of the way the world will be when it recognizes Jesus Christ as its center: When we awaken to the reality that we are created in and through Christ–and are drawn to him as our center the way all those subatomic bits are drawn to the God particle–we will take on greater substance and surge with light, which is what the title of this holy song means.
But there is more. Christ gives us substance and light not for our own sake. Too much of Christianity grasps only this half-truth. The Third Song of Isaiah goes on to say that when the Truth is fully revealed, when we kneel before it the way the magi kneel to the Christ-child— when it completes us—we will be changed as essentially as those particles in the Hadron Collider are changed when they slam together at the speed of light. Where our minds once tended to brood and darken, we will instead see the world in light. Where we were closed off, insular, and self-protective, the gates of our hearts will remain ever open. We will, each of us, foreswear violence and live in peace. We will, in all things, seek to further the purpose of Christ Jesus through whom we are made, which is always, always love.
That is the Epiphany. That is the Truth disclosed by God and discovered by the wisest men and women, both in the first century and today. It is practical rather than theoretical spirituality. It bears concretely upon the way we respond all those things I mentioned at the outset—politics, storms, the Sandy Hook shooting—all those joys and tragedies that marked 2012 and surely await us in 2013.
Once physicists discovered the God particle, they could never turn back. Their world will never again be what it was before that truth was disclosed. Once we have experienced the Epiphany, we can never go back, either. We have seen the Christ at the heart of the world. It has been revealed that we were created for no other reason than to live through him and for him. We now know the Truth. Surge, illuminare. Take on new substance, rise and shine. Amen.
[i] “Discovery of subatomic ‘God particle’ acclaimed,” The Roanoke Times, July 5, 2012, page 3. See also “The Discoverer: Fabiola Gianotti,” in the December 31, 2012, issue of TIME Magazine.
[iii] Colossians 1:16-17.