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Following Yonder Star – December 12, 2010

It is nearly the end of the second week in December. The days here in Beverly are growing all too short and the wind off of Massachusetts Bay is blowing powerfully cold. There are carols on the radio, red, white and green colored cookies and treats in the shop windows, and all of my favorite sitcoms had “very special” episodes this week. Even I, who am so critical of the effects of capitalism upon religion, and in particular of retailers who put up decorations and play jingles earlier each year, in the hopes of drumming up more sales. Even I, must admit: we are really in it now. The season of Christmas is upon us.

The signs, as I say, are all around us, and as I was driving the other night, I saw yet another one. It was so bright that it caught my eye from three streets away. Approaching, I could only see it as a blur of colored light, and it wasn’t until after I had passed it that I realized what it was. It was a nativity display – a particularly elaborate one in which all of the figures were made of hollow plastic and illuminated from the inside. A basic nativity scene needs just three characters: a mother named Mary, a father named Joseph, and a newborn named Jesus. But most of them have more than that. Usually there are animals around the holy family, to remind us that the foundational figure of the largest religious movement in human history was born in a barn. Many will also have shepherds; men who were watching their flocks by night and were called in from the fields by an angel, to meet Jesus just after his birth.

And finally, many nativity scenes contain three more figures, usually with golden crowns and flowing robes, holding beautiful boxes in offering to the central infant. These are the Magi, the three wise men who have come from the East, following a star, searching for a newborn king. Now there’s a bit of a contradiction in this familiar scene. Because most of these images are drawn from the Gospel of Luke: the birth in the barn, and the shepherds come to greet the newborn babe. The Magi, on the other hand, are only talked about in the Gospel of Matthew, and in that story they don’t meet Jesus and his parents until days or weeks after his birth. When they do meet, it is specifically in a house, not a barn. You see, the popular Christmas story is a sort of an aggregate: it takes pieces from Luke, and pieces from Matthew – the Gospels of Mark and John don’t talk about Jesus’ birth at all – and it mixes them together and adds some other details and ideas that have accrued over time.

The four canonical Gospels of the Christian bible tell stories that are quite similar, but contain many differences in their details. Because those details can be seen as contradictory, and because all orthodoxies are afraid of contradictions, the differences are usually downplayed, which is too bad. Some of the stories in those details are fascinating; one such, is the story of the Magi.

The Gospel of Matthew calls them Magi, which was the Greek term for a Zoroastrian, a very popular religion at the time. The Greeks associated Zoroastrians with astrology and other means of predicting the future; that wasn’t a particularly big part of their religion, but they came to be so closely associated with them in the Greek consciousness that we get the English word ‘magic’ from this misunderstanding. Which just goes to show that unfounded stereotypes are not a uniquely modern occurrence. So if they were Zoroastrians, these Magi – they come in a group, but their exact number is never given – were likely from the Parthian Empire, travelling from somewhere in modern Iraq or Iran.

They came to Jerusalem, they explained, because they had seen a star rising in the sky, which indicated to them that a great king had just been born, and so they set out to look for that king. After consultations in Jerusalem, they travelled on and that star they were following actually moved through the sky ahead of them, guiding their way. Finally, it stopped and held still again – for anyone who is not an astronomy buff, this is a very strange series of things for a star to do – and there underneath where it had stopped, was the house where Jesus and his family were living. And so the Magi were able to meet the child they had been looking for, and to give him the gifts they were carrying with them.

Now, try to think about this story, from the point of view of these astrologer characters.. They see a star in the night sky, a sign of something strange and new at work in the world, and set out to follow it. In doing so they are leaving behind their country and their religion; their arrival does not herald or symbolize some mass conversion. For over five hundred from the beginning of Christianity, Zoroastrianism was one of its primary competitors. This is a Macy’s and Gimbles, Pepsi and Coke type of rivalry. And this star that the travelers are following – it moves in a way that no star moves, and hangs so low in the sky that it can clearly point out a single house by its position. It is no normal thing, and in an era when people all over the world are studying the nigh sky for signs of the future, it is not the sort of thing that would go unnoticed. What a wondrous thing, to see what others cannot; and what courage it would take to follow such a strange star, on an even stranger journey.

The story is hardly the first case in human history of lives being directed by the motion of the stars. Human beings have been fascinated by the night sky for millennia, and our different cultures in different ages have found many signs of wonder and mystery there. Often, we have invested wildly different meanings into the same collections of stars. Consider the constellation of seven stars you probably know as the Big Dipper. The light from each of those distant suns takes roughly one hundred years to reach us here, and their position in our sky has changed very little in the few million years that there have been humans on Earth to watch them. In Ireland, they are called the Starry Plough. They are Otava, the salmon net, in Finnland and in India, the same set of stars are known as Sapta Rishi, the Seven Great Sages. According to the Taoist astrological system of China, there are two secret stars in that arrangement, bringing the total to nine, and those who can see these otherwise hidden lights are destined to lead a long life.

Hanging high overhead, the stars endure as perpetual and silent witnesses. On the subject of stars, the poet Robert Frost wrote these words:

How countlessly they congregate
O’er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
When wintry winds do blow!–

As if with keenness for our fate,
Our faltering few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
Invisible at dawn,–

And yet with neither

love nor hate,
Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva’s snow-white marble eyes
Without the gift of sight.[i]

But if the blind and silent stars could appreciate the curiosities of the world they shine down on, I think they might be interested in some late-breaking news from the history of astronomy. And by “late-breaking” I mean over 400 years old. In the late 1500s, Tycho Brahe was the bad-boy of European astronomy. He was a flamboyant and quarrelsome fellow who once lost most of his nose fighting in a duel, and thereafter wore a replacement made of gold and silver. He kept a pet moose with a tragic fondness for beer, and hired as his attendant a dwarf he believed could see the future. He was also a pioneering astronomer, who coined the term ‘nova’ for a new star and created an essential record of the motion of planets over time.

There is, at this very moment, a team of scientists hard at work trying to resolve one of the mysteries that Tycho left behind him: the question of exactly how he died.[ii] He was long thought to have been done in by entirely natural causes, but now there is some evidence that he may have died of mercury poisoning. There is even a tabloid rumor that he was murdered by a jealous associate, due to a disagreement they held about the configuration of the universe.

Let it never be said that star-gazing is an entirely safe and uneventful past-time.

This is a lesson learned equally well by Galileo Galilei, another European astronomer of the generation after Brahe. His name is now somewhat synonymous with the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun; an idea that is pretty popular now, but in his day was rather more controversial. Galileo observed the moon, planets, and the stars through his telescope, and recorded what he observed. After doing this for a long enough period, he concluded that the simplest explanation for what he saw was that the Earth, and all the other planets he could see, revolved around the Sun. The problem with that elegant explanation was that the church took it as an article of faith, based in large part on several passages from scripture, that the Earth was immobile, and that therefore everything in the sky must be moving while the planet we are all on stays put. Where Galileo lived, in Italy, there was only one “The Church”, and disagreeing with it meant more than a frosty reception from certain relatives on major holidays.

Not unlike a modern academic, Galileo spent years arguing for the accuracy of his position and publishing in support of it. For the crime of believing his own eyes, and telling others what he’d seen, Galileo was imprisoned and tried for heresy. He eventually recanted, denying his previous position, in a move that must have been terribly dispiriting for him. It did allow him to live however, though his books were banned, and he was placed under permanent house arrest. In the years after his defeat, however, a legend rose up in Italy about the moment when he was coerced into denying that the Earth revolved around the Sun. It was said that he followed his official statement to the court with the Italian phrase ‘E pur si muove;’ ‘And yet it moves.’ The story is almost certainly not literally true, but it is the very essence of something that never happened and yet is utterly true: anyone may be forced to lie, at the mercy of a force that is sufficiently powerful and unjust. But a lie cannot change the actuality of the truth. Even if we were forced to say that the Earth stood still while the Sun circled around it, it would still be the Earth that moved. There is a depth of meaning to the truth that no earthly power can change.

It was thought once that the stars were entirely unchanging, and so they were used as a metaphor for the eternal and immutable. Now we know that they do change over time, only very slowly from our point of view. Fitting, for we live now in a world in which the idea of a pure and objective truth is a much derided, hotly contested thought. And still it moves. Still, our senses bring to us some knowledge, limited as it may be, of the world that surrounds us. Still, we share our experiences with others in order to better understand who we are and the conditions of this universe we have found ourselves in. Still, the heart calls us to attempt what even our blessed reason cannot fully accomplish: to seek after peace and justice, to love even when there is no special gain or profit to loving. And still it moves. So it is that even today, in this marvelous and disorienting day and age, when we know that the lights in the heavens are distant balls of helium and hydrogen, we still have the capability – the need, in fact – to follow stars. Like the Magi of the Christmas story, each of us has a star to follow, some purpose to accomplish by our living in the world. Whether you believe that it was given to you, or that you chose it for yourself, ultimately does not matter. What does matter is that you should follow it with courage, and reverence, and humility towards the other travelers you will encounter. For know this: also, like the Magi, each of us has gifts. And they can accomplish more, can mean more, when they are used together. So in the next few weeks, as you follow your worries and your cares, your hungers and your ambitions, may you take some time for the not-altogether-entirely-safe practice of watching the night sky, and pick yourself out a star to follow.


[i] From his poem, “Stars”

[ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/science/30tierney.html?_r=1

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