The Physics of Christmas
Every year Christmas in our present culture offers us various levels of truthfulness. i) There is the truthfulness of pantomimes - a very low threshold of truth indeed. Jack and the Beanstock, Aladdin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The principal male is actually a girl and often the principal female is a man dressed up as a woman. Usually the theme is a battle between evil and good. The good are always at a disadvantage through the lies, deceit, deviousness and cruelty of the wicked until the very end when the good and honest and sincere triumph and they all live happily ever after. ii) There is the truthfulness of Christmas popular songs - a less imaginative but equally low threshold of truth. 'Rudolph the red nosed reindeer', 'I’m dreaming of a white Christmas', 'Sleighride', 'I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus'. These are seductive but they are commercial musical products manufactured by the entertainment industry to make money. iii) There are Christmas cards - the overwhelming percentage of Christmas cards have anodyne messages such as Season’s Greetings (What does that mean actually?) Happy Christmas, Merry Christmas and Best wishes for Christmas which do not say anything all about what Christmas is for and what Christmas means. iv) There are Christmas parties in offices and elsewhere which have nothing whatsoever do to with the real meaning of Christmas but are a pretence at friendship and leave a sense of emptiness thereafter v) There are lots and lots of presents given and received. Many are duty presents given lest offence be caused otherwise.
How are we doing?
vi) There is the returning to childhood aspect of Christmas in which adults suspend rationality and enter again the beautiful innocence of early childhood and share in the whole Santa Claus thing happily along with their children. Santa does exist, of course. Santa is the image and personification of present-giving which is within all of us. vii) There is the nominal Christian posture of many people at this time who are happy to come to Church but who would never claim to be convinced or committed Christians. They delight in singing the Carols once a year and listen without thinking too much about the accounts of Jesus’ birth from the Bible although this does not make any impact on their lives or living, and when Christmas is over, they do not continue in the worship of the Church. viii) There are Christian people who believe that God did indeed come to earth in the baby Jesus and that He is alive today in eternal life and is the Saviour of the world. ix) There are faithful and committed Christians who have responded to the birth of the Son of God in serving and following Him and witnessing for Him all their days - who have made professions of faith and have lived out their Christianity in the service of the Church and of their fellow human beings. x) And lastly, and in complete contrast to these, there are the avowed atheists of our culture who lump the pantomimes, the entertainment songs and the Gospels together and dismiss the truthfulness of the whole Christmas cultural pageant and also the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, belief in the existence of God, Jesus’ resurrection, salvation and eternal life in His Name. Their argument is based on the contemporary scientific consensus and the hard reality of material and physical life as we know it. We cannot see God. We cannot prove God exists. We cannot demonstrate satisfactorily that Jesus Christ is alive today. There is simply no evidence for life after death. End of story.
But I want to share with you some of the thoughts of yet another group of people. They are scientists who think that recent developments in physics offer the language and understanding of how this wonderful world works which validate the basic claims of the Gospel writers about the birth of Jesus and about the greater claims of Christianity that succeeded Him. They say that science can corroborate the truth of the Christmas story. The old battles between natural and supernatural, spiritual and physical, divine and human are history. Today, in the real world invisible and sub-atomic life and structure, it is feasible that the core elements of the Christmas story are fully true.
I therefore want to share with you the reasoning of a physicist called Frank J Tipler. Now I agree that having a name such as Tipler is not encouraging but we there are many great people who have had slightly strange names. Let us look at Tipler’s thinking. The Star of Bethlehem was, he says, a Type 1a supernova or a Type 1c hypernova located either in the Andromeda Galaxy or one of its clusters….( A supernova is an exploding star and a hyper nova is an exploding star which then falls in on itself) it would leave an expanding gas cloud after the supernova explosion which occurred to announce the birth of Jesus….After 2000 years its energy emission would have faded and no longer be visible to human eyes. The Magi had seen an exceptional stellar explosion and associated it with the birth of a king according to the wisdom of the age. Tipler says the fading element of this Andromeda supernova was first seen in 1885 and observed with telescopes in 1989. This he says was the star that was in the sky directly above the Magi when they visited the newly born Jesus. It past through its zenith at Bethlehem. He goes into a great deal more detail but we must move on.
Tipler demonstrates in his thesis that the virgin birth - really - the virgin conception - of Jesus is something that modern physics can understand. He has his own academic sources and he is not a lone voice in all these erudite matters. In the ancient world of the time of Jesus, it was commonly held that what we would call ‘genetic material’ came only from the father. The child was considered the property of the father. The descendants of King David were called ‘the seed of David’ - literally - they were. But the Greek philosopher Aristotle had also held this view. A child was begotten by the male and carried by the female. Today, we know that both male and female contribute the genetic inheritance. Virginity was valued in the ancient world to prevent contamination of descent. So - the form of Jesus would come entirely from God - as the eternal Son of God - and His material appearance came from Mary and only came into existence at conception, gestation and birth.
Tipler goes on to say that the mind of Jesus would be in harmony with the mind in the nervous tissue of the embryo. Jesus would be the Son of God but also completely human. He then explains how a human male can be born virginally using what we know about human biology today. He says that virgin birth occurs in nature - in two species obviously - some rock lizards and some turkeys - you can think about that as you tuck in on Christmas Day! In the turkeys, the egg cell with one set of chromosomes divides without being fertilised. The chromosomes duplicate and a normal turkey is born. It is always a male turkey. (Humans are diploid - with two sets of chromosomes). Reptiles do not have the same reproduction means as humans. Environment and temperature determine reproduction. Some pythons also it seems can reproduce without what we would call sex. Human cells can be induced to divide without fertilisation. And some scientists have considered that spontaneous - as it were - virgin birth can and has actually happened in humans in something like the same way that twins are conceived. So the old excuse - ‘I don’t know how it happened’ might, in some cases - have been valid. Today genetic testing proves parental responsibility but Tipler says that a DNA test of daughters who closely resembled their mothers - most such virgin births would be female - could be carried out. No such tests, he says, have ever been carried out. In very exceptional cases - the conception would be of a male.
Tipler says Jesus was a special type of XX male - quite rare - 1 out of 20,000 but extensively studied by biologists and geneticists. He reckons that out of the estimated 60 billion humans who have been born and lived throughout history Jesus own conception was unique - with the genes of the Y chromosome present - from a male ancestor of Mary - and - if she had male descendants who were descendants of King David - Jesus was indeed the son of David, even though Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. Tipler goes on to suggest that Jesus’ conception, birth and resurrection are all meant to show us that we too will in future adopt the same characteristics and capacities. 'Beam me up Scotty' is not so far fetched after all.
Whether or not you can accept Tipler’s arguments, it is clear that today, no Christian needs to be bullied by atheists into denying that the Christmas Story is essentially true. The connection between our Maker and our life must raise us upwards and outwards - must enlarge our minds and understanding - and - certainly - the New Testament makes clear that it is all about the future - a future not limited to this earthly time span - not tied to this dimension or universe - which links visible and invisible worlds together in providence.
But Christianity is not just a theory of creation. It is a call to a way of life. It is call to relationship. The way forward for everyone is ethical and spiritual. It is through redemption and salvation as real energy giving dynamics in life. It is about change and transformation and new creation. We are fascinated by the age of the dinosaurs - but these were large and unsophisticated creatures who did not survive. The great merciless despots of human history were all found out and consigned to the past. The future is with those whose lives are open to their Maker’s providence. Christians are not relics of an outdated world-view but pioneers of tomorrow.
Christmas is not about the past but about the future. It is described in detail in the language and understanding of those at its centre point, Mary, Joseph, Luke and Matthew in particular. But - you do not have to suspend your brain function to worship at Christmas. Clever men and women do the research that allows you to believe without hindrance or distrust. The ‘magic’ of Christmas need never be destroyed. The wonder is as real today as on that first Christmas Eve. Because it is true.
See in yonder manger low, Born for us on earth below,
See the gentle Lamb appears, Promised from eternal years….
Lo, within a stable lies He who built the starry skies…
Sacred Infant, all divine, What a tender love was Thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss Down to such a world as this….
Hail, O ever- blessed morn; Hail redemption’s happy dawn;
Sing through all Jerusalem: "Christ is born in Bethlehem!"