Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights, IV:
Look Up At The Night Sky
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Jo and Katie and I have been preaching this sermon series called Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights. If you’re in a dark place, first, find a friend. If you’re in a dark place, second, sing a song. If you’re in a dark place, third, get some sleep. If you’re in a dark place, fourth, look up at the night sky.
Only two of the four Gospels tell us anything about the birth of the Messiah, and they tell very different stories, but they both agree that it all started with the night sky.
Sheepherding is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror when a lamb wanders off or a predator prowls the edges of your flock. So there are the Christmas shepherds innocently minding their own business, playing penny poker around the campfire and passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, when suddenly the stygian night otherwise illumined only by a dusting of scattered stars is ablaze with a spectral, dancing fluorescence. Look up at the night sky. Sometimes the membrane separating this world from the next is as gauzy as the scrim at the Lyric Opera.
Same thing with the Wise Men. We don’t know much about them, but our best guess is that they were scientists from Babylon or Persia. The Greek word Matthew uses to describe them is Magi, and I don’t have to tell you that that’s where we get our English words ‘magic’ and ‘magical’ and magician.’ They were Magic Men, or better, astronomers who studied the stars to predict eclipses, chart the solstices and the equinoxes for agriculture, and help sailors navigate their oceanic voyages.
We don’t know what astral phenomenon captured their lettered attention, but it was rare enough and portentous enough to motivate these academicians—because that’s what they were; they were Professors; they had tenure—we don’t know what motivated these academics to follow the wandering stellar anomaly across 600 miles of trackless desert wastes to get to Bethlehem. It would have taken them at least a month. One way.
Wednesday night Doogie and I were walking west down the first fairway at Indian Hill. It was about 6:00, 40̊, a cloudless sky, the air still, crisp, and immaculate.
Like the Magi, we looked up, just to the southwest, maybe 45̊ from due west, and we saw–well, I did anyway; Doogie did not comment on it—we saw an uncommonly large, bright, white disk, and, just to the east, its smaller, ruddier companion, almost the color of the setting sun, just the narrowest gap of night sky between them. Neither was twinkling, so they couldn’t have been stars.
Unless you’ve been hiding in a bunker this last week, you know that what Doogie and I were seeing was the approach of The Great Conjunction of the Planets Jupiter and Saturn, Jupiter the bright white disk, and Saturn its flame-colored little sister.
On December 21, the winter solstice—how poetic is that?—On the winter solstice, they’ll be almost completely adjacent, so close they’ll look almost like a snowman tipped over on its side, or maybe overlapping like a cosmic Venn Diagram. It hasn’t happened like this since 1643, but it was too close to the sun to see that time, so no practiced astronomer nor star-gazing novice has seen it since 1226, 800 years ago.
The Great Conjunction is sometimes called The Christmas Star, because over the centuries astronomers and Bible scholars alike have suggested it might have been what the Magi saw, and “followed,” so to speak, to Bethlehem.
There was a Great Conjunction in 7 BC, which makes it timely, because, ironically, Jesus was probably born six or seven years BC, before Christ. Too complicated to get into just now.
Maybe the Magi saw The Great Conjunction. Or The Christmas Star might have been a comet or a supernova. Or maybe this astral event was a legend Matthew concocted to make a theological point.
But my theological point is that seeing Jupiter and Saturn practically kiss the other night was therapeutic for me. Since March 12, I have spent so much time looking down at newsprint or horizontally at screens. I have been addicted to the news, and like many addictions, this one is not helping me thrive during a dark time.
Now, I guess I have to know terrible things are going on in a broken world so that I can live responsibly and preach discerningly, but I don’t have to be consumed by it. The negativity starts to pile up and poison your attitude. Last Sunday I was walking the dog at 6:30 a.m. We’re up and out at that hour because I have to make a call about the Outdoor Service; 6:30, everything is fine; cloudy but warm enough and not raining. At 6:45, we’re headed home and it starts to rain. I had to call it.
I was crushed. I know there are only 30 of us there for that Outdoor Service, but I so look forward to seeing at least a few of you there. It felt so unfair. I said to my wife, “I just can’t catch a break.” I didn’t quite claim that God was picking on me, but close.
What a juvenile attitude, as if the universe existed to meet my wants and needs. Since Copernicus we’ve known that the solar system is helio-, not geocentric, but I haven’t learned yet that it’s not Williamcentric either. I haven’t learned yet that the planets don’t revolve around me.
Looking up and out at the night sky puts this all in perspective. It can liberate you from the pinched and narrow confines of your own ego. When Jupiter and Saturn come close, they call it The Great Conjunction. There’s just the thinnest sliver of night sky between them. Really, though, they are 400 million miles apart.
It takes a beam of light 100,000 years to cross the Milky Way Galaxy. Just our galaxy. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second.
If you could drive a car to the nearest star at 70 miles-per-hour, you would get there eventually—in 356 billion years. The nearest, not the farthest, star; 356 billion years.
Someone estimated that there are 70 sextillion stars in the universe. I don’t know how they came up with that number, but that’s what they say—70 sextillion. That’s a 7 with 22 zeroes behind it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson says that the 100 billion galaxies in our universe “decorate the dark voids of space like cities across a country at night.”
I think maybe I’ve told you before that I curate an ongoing list called “Underrated Films of Vast but Invisible Cultural Significance.” I am absolutely the only person on earth who has any interest whatsoever in this private list, but it entertains me.
I’m thinking of films like Love, Actually; or that masterpiece Best in Show; or The Family Man; or Moonrise Kingdom, almost anything by Wes Anderson. I love Galaxy Quest. My daughter thinks I am insane to be enraptured by Galaxy Quest, but I just am.
My favorite Underrated Film of Vast but Invisible Cultural Significance is Joe Versus the Volcano. Almost no one saw it, but it is one of the four films Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan shared.
Tom Hanks play Joe, the titular character, and Meg Ryan plays three different roles in a tour de force performance? I happen to think it is the finest of her career, although it is hard to beat When Harry Met Sally.
Things are not going well for Joe, the Tom Hanks character. You think you got problems? Go see Joe Versus the Volcano. Joe thinks he is terminally ill. He’s not, but he thinks he has mere weeks to live. And then things get worse.
It’s too complicated to get into just now, but Joe’s sailboat is shipwrecked in the South Pacific, and he ends up lost at sea floating on a life raft.
He’s out there for days, delirious from hunger and thirst, in and out of consciousness. One night, Joe wakes from his stupor under the biggest, brightest, most glorious moon you have ever seen in the cinema. It is right there. It is so close you can touch it.
Joe staggers to his feet, his haggard face lucent with the soft, silver glister of moonbeam, and he raises his arms high and it’s as if he’s holding up the moon in his own hands, and then he falls to his knees and prays one of the best movie prayers I’ve ever heard: “Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how...big! Thank you. Thank you for my life.”
If you’re in a dark place this Advent, look up to the night sky. You might see spectral phantoms scurrying across the dark, singing “Gloria!” An astral anomaly might lead you straight to the Christ Child. That veil separating this world from the next? It’s just the gauziest scrim. You can see right through it.
“25 Mind Blowing Astronomy Facts,” astronomyforbeginners.com/astronomy/amazing-astronomy-facts/
“The 13 Most Fascinating Astronomy Facts,” Florida Tech, November 9, 2017, https://news.fit.edu/academics-research/13-fascinating-astronomy-major-facts/
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (New York: Norton, 2017), p. 63.