We stepped out onto our deck the other day, and saw something unusual in the gloaming: a celestial event some 800 years in the making.
I was pleased to note that the planetary conjunction even turned out to be easy to spot in the southwest sky – big and brilliant enough to be captured with my iPhone’s camera.
Jupiter and Saturn were putting on a show for us, just by doing what planets do…dancing ever-so-deliberately in their orbits around the sun. And in the process, they created an optical illusion of sorts – seeming to merge into a single bright orb…at least to the unaided eye.
“The Christmas star,” some have called it…and a possible astronomical explanation for the heavenly light that’s said to have guided the Magi to the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem two millennia ago.
Frank(incense)ly, that speculation didn’t do much to stir my soul. Sure, the planetary conjunction was bright (the 2020 version anyway). But not that bright. Nor was it in the east: no sir, not in the least.
It did seem holy to me, though – all the more so when I saw the image a cousin posted on social media. He’d captured the phenomenon through a telescope – offering a level of resolution that revealed not a conjunction, but a vast emptiness between the two planets. And more: The photo highlighted distinct rings around Saturn…and several of the largest moons orbiting Jupiter.
Seeing this image, my heart was moved to awe. There’s a breathtaking beauty to the cosmos, the signature of a God who delights in filling our cups to overflowing.
Exquisite and elegant is the universe, teeming with wonders far beyond what the unaided eye can perceive.
There’s an order to the universe, as well – an expectation that wells up from the predictable movement of the planets.
Indeed, my heart soared to consider the fact that Francis of Assisi (and those of his generation in the 1220s) were the last humans to see what we were blessed to see earlier this week. As an integral part of his Christology, Francis taught us to revere Brother Sun and Sister Moon, so surely his heart was moved 800 years ago – just as ours have been this week – to witness the cosmic beauty in this great Christmastime conjunction of the planets.
And Francis, I suspect, would have treasured something else about this holy season – far more than any heavenly spectacles he observed. The greatest Mystery of the universe, he knew, resided much closer to home: God-with-us. Emmanuel.
Some years ago, I wrote a little proem (prose poem) entitled “The Star of Christmas” as a way of meditating on the great gift we celebrate in Jesus. It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to reprise it on this blog each Yuletide – an especially appropriate “repeat”, perhaps, as we mark a bright and unusual celestial conclusion to an otherwise dreary year.
The Star of Christmas
Ever notice? This time of year, the stars seem especially bright.
It’s almost as if the sky is clearer…and the heavens are closer to earth than they are in the summertime.
If you go outside early in the morning and look up, you can almost see God winking at us from afar.
“I see you!” the Holy One seems to say. “And I’d really like to share the beauty of this quiet moment with you – just you and you alone – before you start to get caught up in all the activities of the day.”
Only God doesn’t just wink at us from some far distant galaxy.
That’s the incredible gift we celebrate at Christmastime: God is right here, with us.
The Mighty One, it turns out, is also Someone we can hold in our hands, just as Mary held the baby Jesus in her hands, oh-so-many years ago.
God brightens our day with a constant presence…in the person of God’s precious Son.
Jesus is the true Star of Christmas…
God’s gift to each and every one of us…
…A clear and sparkling Light to lead us home.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.
Beautiful. Merry Christmas, John.