Material Matters

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At this time of year, we create and share Christmas lists in our household. Over Thanksgiving, the adult siblings divvy up gift giving for each family. Grandparents ask repeatedly about clothing sizes for the grandkids. The children try to leverage their lists to maximize their Christmas day haul.

Say what we want about the reason for the season—it is not about the gifts!—the truth is that all that material, wrapped up in paper and topped with a bow, can bring a lot of joy to both the giver and receiver. Heck, even the Magi packed their packages to deliver to baby Jesus on that very first Christmas.

The materialism of Christmas gets a bad rep—and for very good reason. But to assume that the only thing that matters as we prepare for Christmas is the immaterial things would be a terrible mistake.

God Likes Matter (and Time and Space)

In the past, I have asked: what kind of God would create a world with this or that characteristic? It is a fun way to recognize God’s creative work and also to wonder about what the natural world is telling us about God.

Let’s give it a try. What kind of God would create a universe that is nearly 14 billion years old, stretches across 90+ billion light years, and contains something like a septillion stars? Now, before we can answer the question, we must understand the scale of these numbers. They are not just big, or even really, really big; rather, they are beyond comprehension.

Take the age of our universe and let’s map it into a single year. The big bang happened on January 1, our Milky Way galaxy appeared in mid-March, and planet Earth came to be in early September. Very simple life emerged in mid-September, but we waited until early December for multi-cellular life and December 20 for non-aquatic plants.  Primates showed up with only 12 hours left in the year and baby Jesus was born at 23:59:55, a mere five seconds left before the year’s end.

What about these distances? Imagine the sun is a grapefruit (say in Washington, D.C.). Earth would be a grain of sand 17 steps away. The next closest star (4.1 million light years) would be about 1,880 miles away (or in Albuquerque, NM). Here is the kicker—the 4.1 million light years to the nearest star represents only 0.00004555 of the diameter of the universe.

What mind-boggling numbers! This is a case where I find Scripture easier to grasp. Creation, even given the grand scale of our universe, was deemed good by our God. God must like having all this time and distance and matter. Why would God create a septillion stars—1 followed by 24 zeros—if material does not matter?

God Also Likes Life

What kind of God would create a planet teeming with life?

Using that same cosmic calendar, life first appeared on Earth (4.51 billion years ago) only eight days after the Earth was formed (4.54 billion years ago). It did not take long for space dust to emerge as life on Earth. Today, life is found everywhere on our plane­t—in the coldest extremes, the darkest caves, and even the deepest ocean trenches.

It also takes on a remarkable number of forms. Think of the microbiome of a whale that helps it digest a meal, or a hummingbird extracting nectar from an exotic flower, or a wild boar digging in the dirt for mushrooms. Life can stop us in our tracks with its beautiful diversity.

New research suggests life on Earth is significantly more plentiful than the grains of sand on Earth or the number of stars throughout the universe. The effort to count the number of living cells on Earth—most of them cyanobacteria—estimates the total number to be nonillion, 1 followed by 30 zeroes).

The same God who apparently likes matter (and space and time) seems to also delight in living things.

Then There is the Matter of Christ

The reason for the season—lest we get preoccupied in giving and receiving gifts—is often understood to be spiritual. It’s an immaterial God opposing materialism (aka consumerism). The emphasis is put on the divine’s arrival to rescue all the material beings from our sin.

That is true, but Christmas is also a very material thing. God became living matter in the womb of Mary, eventually taking a first breath on Christmas morning in the midst of materials, which formed a stable and animals that we remember with our Nativity sets.

To properly prepare for Christmas means we must take materiality seriously. God certainly does.

The God who comes on Christmas morning created unfathomable amounts of stuff that scientists help us to see and appreciate. This is an unexpected way we can prepare for Christmas—to delight in all that God created.

Nearly a century ago, Edwin Hubble measured spiral nebulae to determine the distance of observable galaxies. He found the farthest one to be 140 million light years away, indicating the universe was something like 280 million light years across. Hubble also determined the age of the universe to be 2 billion years.

Back then, those numbers were as unfathomable as a septillion stars and nonillion living cells. New science continually enlightens us on the scale of our universe, but the vast depths of time and space and matter tell us the same thing about our creator: God delights in both material and life.

My prayer for Advent, amid the materialism of the season, is that we will not only recognize the spiritual significance of the incarnation of Christ, but that we will also appreciate its materiality. Our Savior took human form, occupying just a few of those 10^30 cells on a planet that happens to orbit one of the 10^24 stars God created.

This is part of the good news of Christmas—both the immaterial and the material matter to our God.



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