The death last week of Stephen Hawking has put me in mind of theoretical physics, and in particular of black holes - those phenomena of space and time on which so much of Hawking’s work focused. For my purposes, I’ll just describe a black hole as a region of space and time with a gravitational pull so powerful that nothing can escape it. Being more a man of letters than of numbers, I have a tendency to consider this as-yet-directly-unobserved phenomenon for its metaphorical possibility, rather than its scientific specificity, which is probably a disservice to the great physicist (or any physicist), for which I apologize in advance. But chalk it up to the sheer force of Hawking’s influence in the contemporary, mainstream imagination, that the urge to enlist this avowed atheist in the enterprise of preaching the Gospel feels like, well, a gravitational pull so strong I can’t escape it.
I have no business talking about theoretical physics, in which I can’t even be called a dabbler. But the more I have read about and by Stephen Hawking these past days, the more it has seemed to me that, although he was not himself a believer, his avenue of inquiry and his discoveries are in no way at odds with the avenues of inquiry and discoveries of faith. And if scientific observations translate well into theological metaphor, mightn’t they shed light all the same? Can’t science articulate more than one true thing at a time?
I hear Jesus say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And can’t I be forgiven for hearing so clear an echo of that description of a black hole: a region of space and time with a gravitational pull so powerful that nothing can escape it? And doesn’t it sound almost as if Jesus has something like this in mind, too?
How can I ignore it when I read that “when very massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle... [and] a black hole has formed, it can continue to grow by absorbing mass from its surroundings”? (Wikipedia entry on “black holes”) This doesn’t sound to me like a process unrelated to the mind of God. Especially when it would nearly suffice as a description of the church, and when it seems entirely congruent with the unusual claim that Jesus made as he anticipated his death on the Cross: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.”
It requires a shift, of course, for us to think of this inevitable gravitational pull as a positive force, and not simply a journey down the drain. But Hawking, himself, is responsible for supplying us with this shift in thinking, since it was his research that showed that black holes were not merely sucking everything into them with irresistible force, they were also “leaking radiation and particles” and could eventually explode “transform[ing] them from destroyers to creators....” (NY Times, “Stephen Hawking Dies at 76, March 14, 2018, by Dennis Overbye)
“Hawking radiation,” if I have this right, is the stuff that comes out of a black hole - that is, it’s the stuff that escapes from the space and time from which nothing could escape. That sounds a bit like resurrection to me.
To the popular mind, a black hole, of course signifies the inevitability of death, in some real sense. The Times obituary of Hawking calls black holes “those mythological avatars of cosmic doom.” I suppose that in many ways the site of a Roman crucifixion was meant to serve as an avatar of cosmic doom - or at least we may see it that way with hindsight. Put three crosses on a hill and you could have a symbol for something like that. Who would approach such a thing, knowing that the Cross - that symbol of the empire’s ability to to put you to a painful and tragic death - leads only and inevitably to doom? But the story we begin to unfold every year at this time, includes this strange prescription of Jesus that “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” St. John makes it clear that it is the Cross that Jesus is referring to, telling us that “he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
And isn’t resurrection what happens when life escapes, so to speak, from death, that space and time from which nothing can escape? And isn’t Jesus the pioneer of resurrection? And don’t you hear him saying, only days before he is nailed to his Cross, not to be afraid, though he knows it is is frightening to be so close to death, so close to what the physicists call the “event horizon,” which is this point of no return at the edge of a black hole, from which no escape is possible. (Wikipedia entry on “event horizon”)
You get the sense, listening to Jesus today that he is in sight of the event horizon of his Crucifixion, on the threshold of a cosmic ministry that is new to him, although he came to us from eternity. You get the sense that he knows that he is nearing the event horizon, and that although this is frightening to everyone involved, still, it must be encountered. You can almost hear him steeling himself, and us, for the passage that is to come, which no one has ever made before, and which no one will ever have to make again. And you can hear him reassure us that although the path looks frightening, we can trust him.
Remember that nothing should be able to escape the gravitational pull of a black hole - certainly no light. And yet, the wonder of the cosmos is that something does emerge from its irresistible pull. This doesn’t mean that you want to go sailing around the edges of a black hole to enjoy the view. But it does mean that even the most powerful forces of the universe are more complex than we had imagined, and in a way, knowing this changes everything. It certainly changes what we might be afraid of. And nothing and no one is supposed to escape the inevitability of death. But Jesus is the One who crossed over the event horizon into that inevitability, and then emerged from it again.
In the church’s terms, you might say that next Sunday, Palm Sunday, is, in a sense, the event horizon of the Christian story - the point of no return from which no escape is possible - at least for Jesus. Only Jesus crosses over into the black hole of death in order to lead the way back out of it by the power of his resurrection. He is the original Hawking radiation, so to speak, the One who escapes from a black hole. That is, he is the One who rises from the space and time from which nothing can arise. The good news for us is that he does it for us all, since all of us face the same event horizon of death, fearing that its inescapable darkness is all that lies before us.
And I think that he may be telling us with these strange prophetic words - “I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself,” - that from the Cross, where he himself meets death, he can assure us that he will be there at the event horizon of our own deaths, to hold us, and to carry us, to cross over, and eventually, to rise!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 March 2018
Saint Mark’s Church Philadelphia