This is the third of 4 podcasts for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, designed to speak to the global pandemic crisis that we all face together.
A great cosmologist dies and is buried on March 31st, Easter Eve, as it is kept by Western churches. For the Orthodox churches, Easter comes a week later. This year, partly due to the disparity which exists between the Eastern Julian calendar and the Western one, the Western celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation was moved to April 9th. It often falls in the latter part of Lent or in Holy Week itself. This year it would have fallen on Palm Sunday. So the Western church allows it to be a ‘moveable’ feast.
This year the Russian Orthodox church kept the feast of the Annunciation of the birth of Christ on Holy Saturday, the dark day of the tomb, while this year, in the West, it falls at the beginning of the second week of Easter itself. Either way, there is only the shortest of intervals between the sombreness of Holy Saturday, the exhaustion and joy of Easter and the day that we celebrate the becoming of the Word Incarnate. There is barely a moment between the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. All of this, as I said before, coincides with the passing of possibly the greatest cosmologist we have known.
Professor Hawking was somewhat ambivalent about God, at least the God of the bible, as many people read it. He was constantly being pressed for a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about God’s existence, but he declined to give an answer. This was probably because he knew that he was being asked the wrong question. His work, and the work of scientists before him, was more concerned with why there should be anything at all, let alone a consciously creating higher power. I think he was right. If scientists and theologians are going to make progress in making sense of the universe and of the meaning of human existence, the question which they, and the rest of us, need to ask is ‘why?’
When it comes to an answer, it will be those with the uncluttered minds of children who will probably supply it. I would hazard a guess that these are most likely to be poets, artists, and perhaps even priests. The latter is a risky guess, given the Church’s standing in the eyes of many people at the moment. But I do believe that there are priests, both official and unofficial, who minister into the world’s need to make sense of life. These ‘ministers’ do it through simply being present to its pain, both in prayer and in the business of everyday life, without succumbing to the urge to supply answers.
I also think it more likely that the question will be answered in its own asking. Somewhere there are connections to be made between the ‘why’s’ that are wept and sighed in the pain and suffering of the individual, and especially of the innocent, and the moment of the Incarnation of the Word in the acceptance of a young woman’s fiat. We get our answers through letting go into the question. Perhaps Professor Stephen Hawking did this, as he allowed for infinite possibilities in the cosmos and in the nature of existence itself.
I sometimes wonder if cosmologists think of the question, and its possible answer, as hovering somewhere between the contingency of new life, its dependence on Mary’s ‘yes’, and the Cross as the gateway to eternal life, which we only know as death. Professor Stephen Hawking’s funeral took place on Holy Saturday, coincidentally the Orthodox feast of the Annunciation. So the day of his funeral marked the first ‘letting be’ and the last, the day after the final ‘letting be of Christ’, and the ‘why?’ question which Jesus spoke from the Cross, the place where human destiny is transformed.
Professor Stephen Hawking’s funeral took place on a day when the alpha and the omega meet, when a young woman’s fiat meets the summation of all life in her Son’s commending of his spirit to the Father and in his own ‘why?’ question. I wonder what Stephen Hawking is making of this dual contingency, coincidentally reflected in the timing of his own death.