[HOMILY] Christmas Mass at Night: Neuroscience and Creation
I recently listened to a fascinating TED talk on the human brain in all its mystery and complexity. It spurred me onto a little research binge and it turns out Neuroscience has seen incredible breakthroughs in recent years, some of which are worth noting. We have about 86 Billion Neurons in our brain- slightly less than the 100 billion we previously thought- but still stunning. It seems then that our brain would be the largest- is it? No, elephants and whales have much larger brains because they’re larger animals and those things generally correspond.
Part of the uniqueness of our brain is its proportion to our bodies. Though gorillas are 2-3 times larger than us, our brains are three times larger than theirs. Our brain is also remarkable in the amount of energy it uses, for though it’s only 2% of our body weight, it requires 25% of our caloric intake to function.
All of those things are standard figures, they don’t explain much. The most unique part of the human brain is the massive cluster of neurons in our cerebral cortex: 16 billion of our 86 billion neurons are clustered there. This explains why our brain is such an energy suck, since the Cerebral Cortex is responsible for all our superior cognitive abilities: our memory, our ability to plan ahead, learn from mistakes, and so on.
How is it that cerebral cortex is many times larger than any other animal? Turns out… its cooking. Cooking breaks down food into more efficiently digestible calories, because otherwise to sustain our current brain, we would be spending nearly 9 ½ hours a day foraging raw foods. Amazing huh?
Fascinating, yes, but why am I mentioning it in a Christmas homily? Because, as I was listening to the TED talk, I was stunned by the conclusion, so much that I will quote it. When Guy Raz asks how this research changed one scientist’s outlook, she responded,
“I think its very humbling. We’re animals, we’re just another species, it so happens that we were able to pack so much processing power in our cerebral cortex that we’re even at that point now of looking at ourselves.”
So, according to this neuroscientist, our being, our human dignity, can be boiled down to (no pun intended!) one of our ancestors discovering cooking.
Now that, friends, is a very interesting theory. I don’t doubt that her findings regarding the brain were true, and I wouldn’t even doubt that eating cooked foods greatly benefitted the evolutionary process of the human brain; that makes perfect sense. But is that the whole story? Can the foundation of humanity be cooking or a sophisticated cerebral cortex? If that is the case, we all look rather stupid sitting here worshipping God. Because even if it gives us personal meaning to gather here, if the God we are worshipping isn’t the true God, it isn’t responsible for us to be here — we’re wasting our time.
Let’s examine this closely, because there is certainly more to our human story, and Neuroscience is not the only voice we ought to listen to. Let’s see if the Scriptures are convincing. Our Old Testament scripture is the classic Isaiah prophecy we recognize so well from Handel’s Messiah: “For child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.” The Venerable Fulton Sheen used to cite an age-old criterion for any religion, one we are perhaps not familiar with today for a multitude of reasons, but I find it interesting.
The criterion is this: God always warns us prior to breaking into history. He never acts unannounced — this explains the existence of prophets. It indeed may be that we interpret a prophecy wrongly beforehand, that happened often enough. The people of Israel accused Jeremiah of being a false prophet when he told them they would be sent into exile. Yet while they were in exile in Babylon, they realized God had indeed sent them there, and he had sent Jeremiah to prepare them, even against their will.
God tells us when he plans to make a big move in history. By far the biggest move in human history would be God himself becoming Incarnate, so He’d better have warned us beforehand! What does the Prophet Isaiah have to say?
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.”
In Jeremiah’s writings, when he speaks to the people about their return from exile, he speaks also of their final definitive covenant with God, yet there is an interesting tone,
“I will gather them from the ends of the earth… I will lead them to streams of water… I will turn their mourning into joy… I will lavish choice portions.”
God himself, in some mysterious way, was going to act definitively in the final age. I cannot give you all the prophecies here, this would turn into a real midnight Mass and none of you want that. There are libraries full of books exploring exactly how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament.
Yet we could all still say- what does this prove? Jesus was indeed born into the world, this much the historians can agree on. Perhaps Jesus’ birth was foretold. Perhaps he even did amazing things, performed miracles, healed the sick. And he certainly taught us the new and profound way to love one another that we find in the Scriptures. It is interesting then that we can agree on all of these things and we would still look ridiculous gathering here today. In fact, none of those things are distinctly Christian. For to be Christian is not to agree Jesus is an important figure in history, it is to celebrate on this day the Incarnation, to believe that Jesus Christ is God become man!
So here is the question: Is Jesus Christ who he says he is? What are the shepherds looking at in that manger- is it the King of the Universe, the Prince of Peace?
Let’s be real, there are a lot of people here who come to Church once or twice a year. Thank you for being here tonight. It tells me you are not satisfied with the answers our world gives to the most important human questions.
What changed the course of history, what brought us to this moment- was it some of our sub-human ancestors stumbling through the wreckage of a forest fire and finding a cooked patch of veggies or a torched squirrel? Is that the whole story? Are we as humans the result of a dietary anomaly, or a combination of many evolutionary anomalies, or is there more to it? If our “humility” ought to stem from our massive cerebral cortex then we can all leave here satisfied, there is no need for any of us to return next week. We are indeed the masters of our universe- albeit a meaningless one.
But if the message those angels delivered to those poor shepherd boys is true, if the King of the Universe was indeed born in a Bethlehem cave nearly 2000 years ago, then we find ourselves in a different universe entirely. If God exists and humbled himself to the point of becoming a tiny child for our sake, he did so that he might later die for our sins, that he might ascend to the Father and bring every last one of us with him into heaven. If all this is true, our lives are no longer our own.
I want to leave it at that, to leave you with that simple question: “Was God born into the world on the night nearly 2000 years ago?”
Sometimes the simplest questions are the most difficult. If you answer yes- what does that change for you? When I gave a definitive ‘yes’ to that question just ten years ago, God took hold of my life and led me on the incredible adventure that brought me here as your priest. Where will he take you? I can promise it will be a journey full of joy, an adventure the world could never hope to match. Merry Christmas, tonight with all the angels we praise God saying, “Glory to God in the Highest!” Amen.
Christmas Night-mass Readings
 Ted Radio Hour: The Unknown Brain, pts 1 and 2. Quote taken from the interview with Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Aired 12/7/17
 Isaiah 7:14
 Jeremiah 31