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Why it is appropriate that Stephen Hawking’s funeral is on Holy Saturday

Benedict XVI and Professor Hawking’s two worlds have much in common

Stephen Hawking’s funeral will be on Holy Saturday at Great St Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge, not far from Gonville and Caius College, where Professor Hawking was a fellow for more than 50 years.

The choice of site emphasises rather more the “University” than the “Church”, as Professor Hawking was emphatically a member of the former community, if not the latter.

The service will be both “inclusive and traditional” according to the family. While I am inclined to argue that tradition – especially liturgical tradition – is inclusive, I concede that heretofore it has not generally included burial rites for atheists. But this is the sort of thing for which the Church of England seems to have particular expertise, and no doubt the clergy present will adapt with grace and pretend not to notice that the deceased considered their rites nonsense – pious nonsense for which he had some respect, but nonsense nonetheless.

I doubt Professor Hawking’s family considered a Catholic church for the funeral, but if they had, Holy Saturday would not have been possible. Funerals are not permitted on that day, when Christ himself is “liturgically” dead. The Church keeps silence, as it were, in the darkness of the tomb, until the first lights of the great vigil of Easter are kindled.

The choice of Holy Saturday was probably a practical one. Great St Mary’s doesn’t have any Holy Week services on Saturday, unlike on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Nevertheless, it strikes me as suggestive that Professor Hawking’s funeral will take place on Holy Saturday. Hawking’s most famous work dealt with black holes, which had been thought of as akin to pits where all that was sucked into them disappeared. Without getting into physics that is far beyond me, Hawking argued instead that black holes emitted a certain radiation, that not all that was thought lost was indeed gone.

There is something of Holy Saturday in that: the day of the great stillness, where all seems lost. Hope itself seems to die behind the stone that was rolled across the tomb. And yet, something begins to radiate from behind the stone. Scientists studying the Shroud of Turin do not know how the image was formed, but one theory is that it was created by a burst of energy – radiation – from the body around which the cloth was wrapped.

The liturgy of Lent and Holy Week approaches the emptiness, moving towards the “black hole” of Holy Saturday. First the “Alleluia” goes, and then the organ, and the flowers on the altar, and then the images are covered over during Passiontide. Finally the altar is stripped on Maundy Thursday, and even the Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday. On Holy Saturday, light itself has been lost. Everything is gone. But it is not. The radiation still comes forth, and the restoration – the resurrection – is accomplished.

Despite the confusions today over the philosophy of science – to which Professor Hawking was not immune – theology and physics are meant for each other. The liturgy – from the rising of the sun to its setting may the name of the Lord be praised – situates itself in the world of physics. Did not Benedict XVI, at World Youth Day in Cologne, liken the Eucharist to “inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being”?

I can’t keep up with either professor, Benedict in theology or Hawking in physics. But the two have more to converse about than the world might think.

Professor Hawking’s remains will be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, alongside those of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. I don’t suppose he ever thought about it, given his views that there is no life after death, but now all those who come to honour Hawking’s grave will enter a church built so that the praises of God might be sung. Physics, for a blessed few, touches the creative power of God. Music, for so many more, permits the creative love of God to be encountered.

It is not likely that Holy Saturday per se, as opposed to Easter in general, will figure greatly in the funeral of Professor Hawking. Perhaps on the day of God’s silence, those gathered will not speak of God at all.

But God does speak. Even before the liturgy, He speaks in His creation. Stephen Hawking understood what was being said there better than most, even if he did not grasp what it meant.

Holy Saturday, the day of the tomb. We all know what the tomb means. Until it does not mean that any longer.

A blessed Easter to all!

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca

This article first appeared in the March 30 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here