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.
This is the world explored by 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.[i]
Lucky for us, that didn’t happen. But what did happen at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, and announced with fanfare in newspapers and on cable news channels across the globe, was the discovery of the “God particle.” In laymen’s terms, the God particle is that subatomic bit that draws other particles to it, 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.
Today, in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany later this week, 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, when they find the essence, the purpose, the meaning of creation. In this child they see, in the words of St. Paul, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” As they gaze at Jesus, the magi realize, as Paul also says, “all things have been created in him and through him…and in him all things hold together.”[ii] In this tiny and simple child, all else hinges.
Our Gospel reading shares with us the fact of this discovery. But in the Epiphany season we are about to enter, we also receive the content of the meaning and purpose Jesus embodies at the heart of all things. During Epiphany we often read 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—when we 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 that 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 Collier 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 that linger from 2020 as we enter into a new year. 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.
[ii] Colossians 1:16-17.