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Associated Press
A man walks past a display showing the nativity scene along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011.
It's up to us to see God at work behind it all. That — when you strip away the sales, the glitter and the presents under the tree — is the essence of the Christmas season.

Scientists said this week they are getting closer to understanding how the universe was built. While difficult to understand, this concerns the riddle as to why some objects in the universe have mass while others, such as photons, have only energy without mass.

It's interesting stuff. Physicists are hoping to isolate a particle that scientific theory says ought to exist to interact with other particles and give them mass. This elusive thing has come to be known as the "God particle."

By extension, scientists say, if it is found, it would explain how planets, stars and people came to be.

It also makes for a nice Christmas message.

I say that only partly tongue-in-cheek. Scientific discoveries are neutral on the subject of religion. They try to explain the how but not the why. Science shows us the mechanics at work in the tiniest of particles.

It's up to us to see God at work behind it all. That — when you strip away the sales, the glitter and the presents under the tree — is the essence of the Christmas season. A dry-eyed analysis could tell us much about the composition of the manger, or cave, where Jesus was born, the sanitary conditions and the customs of the age. The rest of the story can be seen only through faith, a particle that has given energy to great human accomplishments.

Atheists have shown a lot of energy of their own this season. For instance, in Santa Monica, Calif., they have worked hard to co-opt what traditionally was a collection of nativity scenes and other religious displays by area churches.

As the Associated Press reported this week, each year the city makes 21 display spaces available in a park, complete with chain-link fencing to protect against vandals. Usually, a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association claims 14 of those spaces to erect life-sized figures depicting a traditional representation of the birth of Jesus.

This year, however, there were so many applicants that the city decided to use a lottery to divide the space. A group called American Atheists ended up with all but three of them.

The atheists are leaving most of their spaces empty. On three of them they have erected messages. One has images depicting King Neptune, Jesus, Santa Claus and Satan, with a message that says, "Americans know MYTHS when they see them. What myths do you see?"

Another has a quote from Thomas Jefferson concerning all religions being founded on "fables and mythologies."

Setting aside the dishonesty of portraying Jefferson as an atheist (he had complicated beliefs, but did believe in a supreme being), this illustrates the struggle of the season — between the limited vision of the human eye and the hope that gives meaning to a troubled world.

It's hardly a new struggle, but its outcome decides who we are as people and how we feel about the world around us.

There is one piece of common ground between the competing sides. Atheists and people of faith both believe the world will cease to exist some day. A supernova, a radiation blast from a black hole or a cataclysmic melting of the elements from the hands of a righteously indignant God will end earth as we know it.

The difference between the two comes down to hope and despair, and Christmas is all about hope.

It's about the hope that our lives here, the good or ill we do, will matter beyond the sum of the elements that define us and our surroundings.

It's about the hope that relationships will not evaporate with the tears at a funeral.

It's about the hope for justice, not from a need for vengeance, but for the sake of those mistreated and abused.

It's about hope that a brilliant light shines even in the coldest darkness, just as so many colorful lights bring sparkle to December's gloom.

Most of all, it's about the hope that life really matters; that it won't all be forgotten in a cloud of cosmic radiation, and that the particle those physicists are seeking set in motion something that was planned for and about us.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at [email protected]. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.