Friday, December 16, 2011


As I’ve come to expect in this “Season of Joy,” my mood has been growing more gloomy as the season progresses. Too many “Christmas Specials” with too many expected songs; too many commercials urging us to ‘hurry: only a limited and steadily decreasing number of shopping days left’; too much of the sense that increasingly each year the remembered spirit of this once-holy season becomes more and more degraded by the over-hyped orgy of conspicuous consumption it has become.

Then this morning, a possible turn. Though I have long since abandoned the theology the season supposedly represents—the virgin birth of a God called Jesus in a manger marked by a star—the underlying mystery is both profound and worthy of contemplation. I mean the idea of incarnation. Christian (in my case, Catholic) teaching makes a good deal of this: God comes to earth to save us (that’s the big takeaway) by incarnating: he deigns to become flesh, he takes human shape, as one of us. That’s what the joy is supposed to be about: God himself, or rather, his only begotten son, has come to be us all, to save us all. The problem is that this is hyped as something fantastic, something special, something that has happened only once in history, with the corollary that we, the chosen ones, are the only ones who know this and can thereby benefit from it. That’s where the bullshit creeps in. Because incarnation really is a big deal, only not in the manner of something special, something unique to us fortunate humans of the Christians persuasion, who alone will ride to heaven on its back. No. It’s a big deal because it is the great mystery at the center of all our lives, of all life, of all being. Incarnation. Something becomes flesh. Something that is presumably without substance, i.e. nothing, becomes something. And that is a big deal.

Now humans have long noticed this, have long made it a central mystery. A plant appears out of the ground in the spring. Miracle. Mystery. Repeated millions of times. Millions of fishes sprout from the sea: mystery; gazillions of bugs appear in flight from nowhere, as do thousands upon thousands of birds and gophers and all the beasts of the field. Miraculous, and beneficial to us, mostly, the humans who must depend upon crops and flocks and fishes. And so arise the mystery cults, the stories of Demeter and her child Persephone miming the miracle of birth of all nature in the Spring. And of course, in the Christ story, a child bursts forth from a virgin womb, signifying not only the miracle of human birth, but the mysterious birth of God himself. The mystery of incarnation. The problem is that we now know too much to be awed by this anymore, to genuflect or sacrifice to it anymore. We know how plants arise from seed. We ‘know’ that they convert energy from the sun via photosynthesis, and from the soil via mineral transport, and grow cell by cell. We know how humans and all other animals are conceived, via sperm and egg and growth by cell division, all governed by those helical strands of DNA. So the old mysteries, the pretty stories, become myths—tales told by the ignorant to explain processes too deeply embedded in tiny events for the ancients to perceive. And we abandon them, we replace mystery with the “holidays” whose chief purpose is to get us to spend lavishly and keep feeding an economy which depends for its continuance on the utter stupidity of our buying what neither we nor anyone else needs. (I should say that when I was young many years ago, Christmas still had, at least for us, the quality of need: we got coats or boots or gloves we sorely needed to replace outgrown or worn-out ones; and for something impractical, an orange or tangerine that in winter, in the northeast, still had the aura and taste of a rarity.)

But I digress. I was saying how we’ve abandoned the mysteries that are no longer believable—except I suppose in art, like Handel’s Messiah, which still, despite our knowledge, retains some power. But I digress again. What I meant to say, to remind myself, is that incarnation, even stripped of all its mythological trappings by our science, still radiates power. Indeed, it remains the central mystery. And we can, at least partly, thank science for that too. That’s because while rational science has swept away all the “myths” with its penetrating revelations of biology at the cellular level, when it goes deeper, and it has gone deeper, it brings us right back to the mystery again. Though it has shown us, objectively, what happens at the molecular level and even at the atomic level, at the quantum level things get spooky again, mysterious again. That is to say, at the quantum level, we are now told (and virtually none of us can verify this ourselves) that much of elementary matter—those teeny tiny components of atoms and even electrons, with names like quarks and leptons and gluons and bosons—simply appears out of the void. Matter at its most elementary level, the things of which we are made, simply pop into existence and then pop out again. And we don’t know why. Physicists have, of course, named this. They call it “quantum fluctuation” (see, “It’s confirmed: Matter is merely vacuum fluctuations” by Stephen Battersby). They even attribute the birth of the universe, our universe, that is, to quantum fluctuations (no deity needed) which initiated the process leading to the big bang, which burst in this unimaginably fierce explosion to send all those compressed bits careening out into what has become our universe, inflating and expanding faster and faster until gravity gathered things together to produce galaxies and stars and planets and us.

And it all came from incarnation. Matter just popping into existence. Something from nothing. Here is how Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow put it in their recent book, The Grand Design (2010):

Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars, and, in at least one case, beings like us. p. 137.

Now I don’t know about most physicists, but to me, that’s pretty mysterious stuff. And it’s not just that I don’t understand quantum mechanics, which I don’t. The truth seems to be that nobody really understands it. There are formulas to explain things, and experiments that seem to prove it works, but when I read that multiple universes (the concept rather makes the word ‘universe’ an oddity) probably sprang from quantum fluctuations and the big bang, and that all those parallel universes probably exist somewhere; or that when particles split through a screen, there is the possibility that though some land where we can identify them, some have probably tripped out to the most distant corners of the universe; or that we and our whole universe may be a holographic projection of some outer surface of a black hole, well then I have to say that the great mystery of incarnation still exists. The great mystery, that is, is and has always been: why there is something rather than nothing? How is there something? Is there a where from which we and all else derive?

This, I think, is really what we should be pondering during this season. Incarnation. Whether we should be joyful about it or not I suppose depends, at least in part, on one’s situation. But it also depends on the very fact of being. It depends on the improbable fact that something rather than nothing exists. It depends on the fact that the void, the vacuum, the nothing has produced and continues to generate, every day, every hour, every second, every millisecond more stuff, more of this improbable glory, more impossible incarnation. And though keeping the stupid economy going does not deserve celebration, this, this continuous mysterious incarnation, this ongoing mystery of the word (or whatever it is) made flesh, surely does.

Lawrence DiStasi

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