Cosmic Harmonies

 Palm Sunday  

In today’s reading, we are told of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the start of what is now called Holy Week. It will end with his crucifixion, but it begins on a high note. The crowds cheer as Jesus enters the city. It had been predicted that the Messiah would come into the city on a donkey, so Jesus deliberately echoes this prophecy from Zechariah to drive home the point of who He is (Zechariah 9:9)[1].  

The crowd does not just cheer, they chant lines from one of their hymns, Psalm 118.[2] This is something that we moderns don’t do very much anymore. When we attend a political rally, there is often a sound system pumping out a famous song, but not too many people sing to our politicians. Prime Minister Stephen Harper used BTO’s song “Taking Care of Business” as his theme song on the campaign trail; President Joe Biden used “Higher Ground,” an old Stevie Wonder song. But not too many of us would break out into song to greet a visiting politician on our own without a music track blaring. We might chant “4 more years”, but we don’t generally serenade our politicians when they pass by in their limos.  

But back when Jesus was walking into Jerusalem, people did chant and sing when someone important went by, and this worries the Pharisees. They tell Jesus he should silence the chanting and singing of his adoring fans. What are they worried about? Jesus has come to Jerusalem because it is Passover, a major Jewish festival. Hundreds of thousands of Jews have come to town to celebrate and offer sacrifices at the temple. This, in turn, has led the Romans to bring in extra troops to make sure there is no attempt at insurrection. The last thing they want is for the Jews to whip themselves up into a fury about being an occupied nation. The Romans want everyone to know that they are in charge, and no one else.  

That explains why the Pharisees are upset. The crowds who sing to Jesus are singing “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” The problem is that word “king.” The Pharisees know that the Romans will get very upset if they hear the Jews have chosen their own king to lead them. In fact, when Jesus is arrested and brought before the Roman governor, the only charge that sticks is that people have been calling him king. The Romans can’t allow anyone to threaten their authority, so Jesus will be crucified for this. They will even hang a sign above his head that reads in Latin, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”*  

Jesus knows the dangers posed by appearing to be the king of the Jews. But when the Pharisees tell him to silence the crowd, he rebukes them. Jesus says, If the crowd were silenced, even the stones would cry out. The chant of the people would be replaced by chants from the rocks on the road. This sounds like a rhetorical flourish, just a figure of speech. But Jesus is hinting at something larger. He is reminding the Pharisees that he is not just the saviour of human beings, but also the Messiah of the entire world, including nature. He is the one who stilled the sea during the storm, and who walked on water. The Jews are not the only ones who are excited to see Jesus – so is nature, even these stones. When Jesus is nailed to the cross, the Bible tells us even the sun went dark in mourning over what was done to the Christ. This offhand remark about the stones chanting and singing his praise is a reminder that Jesus is not just a moral saviour, but a cosmic one.  

This poses a major problem for us moderns. Stones don’t talk or sing. They are just chunks of inanimate matter, composed of substances like granite and limestone. They don’t have brains, much less mouths, so of course they cannot sing. We know how matter works. It is composed of molecules, which in turn are composed of atoms. Atoms are made of electrons, protons and neutrons. Rocks don’t sing, period.  So, when Jesus says this, we can either hear it as a poetic flourish, or conclude once again that the people who wrote these words were superstitious and too gullible by half.  

It takes a long time for society to digest scientific ideas. Our common-sense view of how matter works is based on ideas that are now 100 years old. This is what we are taught in high school. Atoms and molecules are little bits of stuff, the atom is sort of like a mini solar system. The nucleus is the center, and the electrons orbit around it. However, if you visit the physics departments of universities today, the PhD students and professors don’t talk about matter like that anymore. For the past few decades, many physicists have been devoted to a newer theory of matter called string theory. It is highly mathematical and complex. It posits that the universe is composed of 11 dimensions*, not 3 or 4. The goal of string theory is to find a way to understand why there are so many kinds of subatomic particles, and how all the forces, from gravity to electro-magnetism fit together. The hope is that string theory can create a theory of everything that will explain how the entire universe works.  

So, what is string theory? It is based on the idea that matter is not like a mini solar system. Instead, every subatomic particle is made up of tiny round, one dimensional strings that vibrate. The frequency at which a string vibrates determines whether it will manifest the properties of an electron, or a photon of light, or one of the particles that makes up a proton. Matter is not made up of different varieties of little bits of stuff. Rather, what makes matter real is the frequency at which these little strings vibrate. [3]

Physicists know that this theory sounds strange. So, when they try to explain it to non-physicists, they compare it to music. When we play a note on a string instrument like a guitar, the sound of the note is determined by how long or short the string is. Place a finger here, and the string is long, so the note is low. Place a finger here, and the vibrating string is shorter, so the note sounds higher. All of matter is an expression of these kinds of notes. A string that vibrates at one frequency is an electron, a different frequency creates a photon.* When subatomic strings get together to form an atom, several strings are playing at once – the electrons, protons and neutrons. So, an atom is like a chord.  When several different atoms get together to make a molecule, several different chords or sets of vibrations combine to make that kind of matter, like a rock made of limestone.  

When we talk about matter, according to modern science, we are talking about the sum of vibrating strings. A piece of wood is different from metal because its strings are vibrating at different frequencies. It is not that rocks are made of harder bits of stuff than wood. There are no little bits of stuff at the microscopic level. Instead, at that tiny level, there are just massless strings vibrating, which are more like mathematical equations than matter as we are used to thinking of it. All of the world is made up of vibrations and frequencies, like musical notes all playing together at the same time, every second.  

Now, I’m a minister, not a physicist. So here is string theorist Michio Kaku to explain what this means in his terms. He is the author of several textbooks about string theory.  

Let’s take this musical approach to the universe a bit further. What kind of music are these strings playing? Is the universe like a piece of classical music, where every note is written, and can be performed in just one way? Is the world like fate, a fixed piece of music, and we have no choice? No, physicists don’t think it works that way. Particles appear and disappear on a regular basis, all sorts of random things happen all the time. If the universe is like music, it is more like jazz, according to string theorist  Stephon Alexander.[4] It is constantly changing. Matter turns into energy and back again. We see this kind of change in biology all the time. In cities, birds evolve to sing louder because they have to compete with loud traffic sounds.[5] Some mice species are growing longer tails to they can shed heat the climate gets hotter.[6] Among humans, our modern diet of processed, soft food has caused our jaws and faces to shrink in size. In the past 100 years this has introduced crowded teeth, the need for braces, and the removal of wisdom teeth, previously unheard of.[7] Life is about change, like a jazz song, where there is a basic tune, and lots of improvisations.  

This idea that life is like music is one that was well known to early Christians. They saw the universe as a piece of music, with each part of nature given a part to play. Our old model of physics told us that the universe was like a bunch of billiard balls, mindlessly smashing into each other. But the early Christians believed that God had created a vast symphony, where every part of nature was like an instrument or like a voice in the choir. Around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote that God  

“ composed the universe into melodious order, and tuned the discord of the elements to harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony.”[8]  

He likened oceans, air, and fire to tones that were each carefully arranged to create a universal music,  a cosmic harmony. Music was as important a metaphor as law for describing how the universe works.  

This view of the universe can help us today, too. When we see people who have severe disabilities, we may wonder, why God? Why put someone through that? What is the point? Increasingly, more parents are opting to abort children who have Down’s syndrome. Others are placing cochlear implants into children who are born deaf, so that the number of deaf children is being reduced in the West. Yet, deaf people have argued that this is an attack on their culture. They do not mind being deaf, and don’t see it as something that needs to be fixed.  

Indeed, the Academy Award for best picture this year went to the film CODA, which lovingly depicted the challenges and triumphs of a family composed of deaf and hearing people. Deaf rights advocates contend that, they, too , are part of God’s great symphony, just the way they are. [9] They are not a mistake, but another note on the cosmic keyboard.  

We need to be careful about deciding what kind of human being is allowed to exist. A musical view of the universe encourages us to see that every kind of person has a part in this vast symphony. No note on its own is very interesting. It is when they come together with others that music is made. As notes, we may not always be aware of the greater harmonies around us. It took scientists many years to come up with string theory, to see the universe as composed of vibrations, resurrecting an old musical model of the universe. We do know that Jesus has taught us that every kind of person matters, every kind of person is precious and loved by God. We may not get that, but our faith asks us to believe it anyway. We are the notes, not the composer of this jazz symphony.  

On our good days, we can see a universe of harmonies all around us – seasons that come and go on cue without input from us; birds that migrate from South America to the high North each year; rain that evaporates and falls to water lawns a thousand kilometers from here. We are a small part of this vast symphony. And that is a cause for wonder and appreciation. How lucky we are as human beings to have the conscious awareness of living within such a glorious piece of music.  

So let us not marvel that Christ said that if the crowds were silent, the stones would cry out. Our physics departments are discovering that the stones have been singing all along. Is it any wonder they would sing even louder if their creator walked by? If Jesus were to walk in here today, how could we keep from singing?  


[1] The passage initially describes the figure on the donkey as a warrior king, but as the prophecy continues, this figure also has power over storms and other natural phenomena. [2] Psalm 118, specifically. [3] Anil Ananthaswamy , “Found: A Quadrillion Ways for String Theory to Make Our Universe,” Scientific American  March 28, 2019. [4] His book, The Jazz of Physics, is devoted to this idea. [5] [6] [7] [8] Clement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to the Heathens,” chapter 1. [9]; Andrew Solomon, “Defiantly Deaf,” New York Times, August 28, 1994,