St Bartholomew’s, Granite City—John 1:1-18
Science was not my favorite subject in school. In a time when graduation requirements were different than they are today, and with different college entrance requirements, I got through high school with only one year of science—tenth grade biology. In college, I had to take a year of what they called Natural Science, which was essentially “Science for Dummies.” And my lab course in college was Astronomy, which met one evening per week for one trimester. It may be possible that I remember only one thing from that year of Natural Science, and it’s from the portion of the course dedicated to Physics. I’m talking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Entropy. I think the principle of entropy impressed me then, and continues to impress me, because it’s so evidently true. Entropy acknowledges the fact that order will always tend to dissipate into chaos. I’m sure a physicist could cite more sophisticated examples, but on the level of ordinary experience: An untended garden or orchard or field will revert quickly to the natural landscape of the area. You can turn a patch of desert into an oasis, but if you turn off the water, the desert will take over. You can make a clearing in a jungle, but if you put away your machete, the jungle will take over. You can pave a road and erect a building, but if you don’t maintain them, they will be absorbed back into the natural landscape.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics is what makes life itself so amazing, though, because life itself seems to fly in the face of entropy. In order for there to be life, there has to be a high degree of order, and no chaos. Atoms have to be bonded to one another to form molecules (see, I know some chemistry too!), and molecules have to be organized in some incredibly complex ways in order to bring into existence even the simplest microscopic organism, and then allow it to reproduce itself. A living human body, for example, depends on a staggering number of coordinated electro-chemical processes working—if not perfectly, then at a minimal level that is still astoundingly complex—literally just to stay alive from one minute to the next. If the systems that supply oxygen to the brain break down just for three or four minutes, there is irreversible damage, leading quite shortly thereafter to death.
So it seems that Life snubs its nose at Entropy. But does it really? Well, if you talk to a creosote bush in the Mojave Desert that is estimated to be some 12,000 years old, you might answer Yes. But most of us are not creosote bushes, and there is some irony in the fact that, the longer we live, the more acutely aware we are of the impermanence of our lives. Some six and a half weeks from now, we will gather for the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, and we will hear those sobering words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Entropy claims its prize in the end. One by one, those coordinated electro-chemical systems shut down. Now, one could argue that our bodies then become a meal for other, lower, forms of life. Or you could point to the fact that, by the time we return to dust, most of us will have reproduced ourselves at least once. But that’s hollow comfort when you’re the one whose body is conspicuously heading that direction!
So, at best, it’s a draw, a stalemate, between Entropy and Life. Life goes on, but Entropy claims every individual. Eventually, even that 12,000-year-old creosote bush will succumb, and be used as some really great kindling for somebody’s campfire. Reproduction is an ingenious counter-attack on the part of Life. It keeps the battle going, but it doesn’t win the war. It’s still a stalemate because the only kind of life we know is derivative life, life that is borrowed, life that is inherited from our parents and their parents before them, and which most of us manage to pass on before we ourselves become food for bacteria.
This is precisely where the Christmas season becomes good news. More precisely, this is where the mystical prologue to St John’s gospel becomes good news. In speaking to us about the eternal Word of God—the Word now made flesh and dwelling among us—John says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In him was life. Christ inherited human life from his virgin mother. But that she indeed was a virgin mother tells us that he also brought with him a sort of life that comes from somewhere else, from a dimension of reality where the Second Law of Thermodynamics has no authority. In his birth, Jesus introduced a new element into the equation of human life and experience. “In him was life.” Not derivative life. Not inherited life. Life in himself. Complete life. Abundant life. Eternal life.
For the first 39 years of my life, I heard about the Grand Canyon, I saw pictures of the Grand Canyon, I even saw it from 35,000 feet while flying over it in a plane. But I had never stood at the rim and looked down at the Colorado River with my own two eyes. My knowledge was second-hand, derivative. Then, in June of 1991, I went there and I saw it. The pictures were great, but nothing compares with the experience. Now my knowledge of the Grand Canyon is first hand; I have knowledge “in myself.” It’s not borrowed or inherited. The difference between my prior knowledge of the Grand Canyon and my present knowledge of the Grand Canyon is only a small portion of the difference between the human life we inherit from our parents and the eternal life that is ours in Christ. The life of Christ is the sort of life that overcomes all that the world puts in its way. The life of Christ is a light that shines in the darkness, and fully penetrates that darkness. In the end, his life overcame even the cross. He breathed his last; his brain was deprived of oxygen. His body was taken down and placed in a tomb. Time for Entropy to do its thing, right? Wrong! “In him was life.” And that life overcame everything in its path.
It continues to do so. And it’s available to us. When we are baptized we begin to partake of that life. When we say our prayers, and reach out in love to others, and take our place in the communal life of the Church, and especially when we receive Holy Communion, we nurture that life. Yes, our bodies will be eaten by worms. Entropy will claim what belongs to it. But it will be a hollow victory, because we now have life in ourselves, because we are in Christ, and Christ has life in himself. Can there be anything more important for us to do than continue to live in the power of that life, and become the light that shines into a dark world?
In the world to come, they’ll have to rewrite the physics textbooks, because a certain law is scheduled to be repealed.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.