October 24, 2016
The Belgian priest and physicist, Monsignor Georges Lemaître died in 1966 after receiving news that his theory of the birth of the universe—what he called the “hypothesis of the primeval atom”—had been confirmed by the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. Albert Einstein was slow in coming around to Lemaître’s hypothesis of an expanding universe, now popularly called the “Big Bang”—a term that was first meant in subtle mockery, but then he commended it to further research. Just weeks ago, scientists published evidence of the almost instantaneous expansion of all matter from an infinitesimal particle. The scale and volume of this stuns the human mind, but at least if the mind cannot grasp this, it can acknowledge it, along with the fact that there was no time or space before that “moment.” It fits well with the record in Genesis of the voice of the eternal and unlimited God uttering light and all consequent creatures into existence.
Here one must be careful in attributing to physical science an explanation of the “why” as well as the “how” of creation, and theology—equally the highest science—must not confuse itself with physics. In the sixteenth century, Cardinal Baronius said, “The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” In a moment of unguarded enthusiasm in 1951, Pope Pius XII said that Lemaître’s theory proved the existence of God. He humbly backed off when Lemaître told him that a physical hypothesis could do no such thing.
No human hypothesis can tell us what God alone can reveal: that he made the world and all that is in it for his delight. When we delight God by doing his will, his delight infuses his sentient creatures with joy. The composer Gustav Holst may have employed some fanciful theology (theosophy) in giving personalities to seven planets in his famous symphony, but the ”jollity” of Jupiter is a compelling metaphor for the joy of the saints.
Laetare Sunday in the middle of Lent is not so much an interruption of the penitential season as it is an encouragement not to lose the focus of Lent and life itself on the joy that God offers us in Heaven, where there is no time or space, as it was before the world began. The Church goes “up” to Jerusalem in an earthly sense as a metaphor for moving toward the Heavenly Jerusalem which “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). This is a wonder more daunting and challenging than the most abstruse hypotheses of the most brilliant physical scientists. It moves beyond the pleasure of speculation into the purest happiness of encounter. “Rejoice, O Jerusalem; and come together all you that love her.”