“He holds all creation together in himself”: A 1st Friday reflection on the ancient “Christ hymn” found in Colossians

starsI think I’m touched mostly by the first reading this evening. It comes to us as it came to the Colossians from St. Paul, but St. Paul is actually quoting an ancient hymn, one that was ancient even to him. Let’s listen to it again: “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the Body, the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the Blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins famously began one of his poems with this line: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  I will return to this poem a few times this evening, but I want to pause on this statement as a way of thinking about that ancient hymn shared by St. Paul.  Sadly, many folks today envision a rather long, narrow and often broken bridge between the nature of this world—marked as it is by physics and light and what many think belongs solely to the domain of “science”—and the “super nature” of the heavenly realm, if such a realm is believed to exist at all.  I want to reject that and reiterate Hopkins and Paul. That is, St. Paul is calling us to consider tonight that we live in a world that is created and animated—indeed “charged”—in every moment in ways that represent and participate in God’s own divine and triune being.  I believe that a study of modern physics can enlighten our understanding of the trinity and reveal its relevance in the nature of this world and in our lives.

God arranged the world with what has been called a “divinely pre-established harmony,” such that it is the most perfect world possible.  Aquinas agrees that God created the “most perfect world” and notes that God created all the different ontological levels of being: angels (of whom there are many—we heard about them in our first reading), mankind, other life forms, and all other materiality.  All of this creation reflects the divine dignity.  The last line of The Divine Comedy reminds us that even the stars are moved by love, a love we see always at work and in being in the trinity: “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” Creation, then, is part of our theology, and all creation reflects and takes part in the triune love of God—the love that designs and animates and holds everything together.  That Hopkins poem I cited earlier suggests this in that all creation bears witness to a divine freshness: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”  Ancient Greeks recognized this concept in seeing the world as one big beam of light that, while it breaks down into multitudes of colors as if each color were an individual person, remains a harmonious beam of light just as “harmonies of music” are a symphonic union of individual notes that echo back songs of praise to God (Stratford Caldecott, The Radiance of Being).

Theologians in recent years have not really held a trinitarian cosmology that sees divine and triune love in all things.  Rather, most seem to have a mechanist ontology that sees matter and all reality as lifeless objectivity, with no formal or final causality.  This is too bad.  There is a sense, for example, that it is perfectly possible and worthwhile to study and use the human body, but when it comes to the soul, that is seen as something better left to religion or “spirituality.” We see this in the second quatrain of Hopkin’s poem: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod…the soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” Hopkins is criticizing a construction of the world that sees reality—and man himself—in a mechanist way and that wants to separate soul and spirit and body, which is why man is “shod.” This leads to the conclusion that many have sadly already formed: that there is no soul, or, if there is one, it is simply a product of the body and not worth the while. Such conclusions are sad because they enable a terribly misguided worldview that rejects divine and triune love.

A good solution to this trouble is to offer a theological and trinitarian interpretation to modern physics, a project that Stratford Caldecott takes up in The Radiance of Being. I can’t recommend this book enough! Caldecott examines how it is possible that, scientifically speaking, the natural world surpasses that which the mechanists maintain—that is, how it is that the cosmos is indeed ordered to personal existence and how it actually does reflect the trinitarian love of God.  Caldecott begins his project by mentioning Max Planck, who “laid the foundations of quantum mechanics” in 1900 with a theory that atoms and electrons can move in discontinuous jumps.  A few years later, Einstein discovered that electrons and atoms “consist in particles or packets” of energy, and yet also somehow consist in waves.  Einstein made another important discovery in unlocking the reality that there is an “equivalence of matter and energy,” which modern physics holds still today.  These three discoveries—the quantum jump, the wave/particle duality, and the equivalence of matter and energy—revealed that matter is not what it was thought to be; it moves in ways we don’t understand, it is somehow both particle and wave, and it is energy.

Caldecott therefore says that the “new physics” is revealing that the earth and all that fills it is not lifeless at all, but something full of life in every moment and in every atom, a “glowing mass” of energy.  Caldecott insists on this “glowing” idea quite a bit, because his whole point is that we can think about the universe again using a model of light, using the ancient symbology of light I used to begin this talk.  Relying especially on Einstein’s equivalence of matter and energy, Caldecott maintains that the whole universe it more like light than anything else.  “In reality,” he says, “everything is glowing.”  Using the wave/particle duality, we can think once again about the different colors of light that all join together to create a single giant beam of light. This is evident even in Caldecott’s example of a table, which is “full of light…[which] pass[es] to and fro within it, hidden inside, each photon glimmering just long enough to pass from one particle to another.” There is an energetic, light character to everything.  The physicality of the universe as light is a symbol of the act of creation and even of the act of being. All creation reveals the light of the creator, and indeed all was created through the Son, who himself said, “I am the Light.”

Caldecott talks about the “dance of energy and light,” saying that this energetic, light character that is part of everything holds everything together, just as St Paul’s hymn describes.  As I’ve noted, modern science has come to see that all matter is simply “condensed energy,” and so without that energy, the table we were just talking about or the road or our bodies would “dissipate entirely into a vapor of dust, and so would Earth.”  Those particles we’ve been talking about, they are constantly performing this “dance.” Caldecott is right: “it is hard not to be overwhelmed by wonder.”  This becomes very trinitarian when once considers what underlies this whole theory: “The universe is entirely made of energy interacting with itself.” I hope you can see just how trinitarian this is!  The entire Godhead, we believe, holds everything in existence at every moment, for scripture tell us that “he holds all creation together in himself.” Yet, more than that, each person of the Godhead is constantly interacting with the other persons of the Godhead: the Father begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both, and both the Son and the Holy Spirit eternally return to the Father. There is a constant interaction going on in the universe just as there is in the Godhead.

That interaction is not simply for nothing.  The interaction points to the divine and trinitarian relation, to the idea that each person exists “for” the others, and so each divine person pours himself out for the others. Hopkins certainly understands this kenosis-like reality in the physical, natural world: “And for all this, nature is never spent.”  Caldecott suggests that God has ordered every particle to be spent for us, and that more than that, he created the world through his actus purus for us: “The motivational for its creation is nothing other than love.”  There is a sense in which every single every particle on earth exists in order to be “for” not just another particle, but more, for us—for you and for me, personally—and that he would have done it all just for one of us. The universe, as grand as it is, is thus always interlocked, unified, self-giving, and personal: “There is no particle in us that is not called to be ‘from’ and ‘to’ others.”  The whole universe and every moment and every thing is trinitarian!  Caldecott makes this even more relevant for us as human persons:  “To become a person is to be poured out, to be given, and so to become relation by being poured out and given. Everything that is in us must be given, nothing held back…”  That is the message of the Sacred Heart as well, by the way.