Have You Ever Really Seen the Stars? Most city dwellers have no idea of the glory the ancient Magi saw

As we consider the feast of the Epiphany, one of the central elements in the story is the Star. Endless theories on what the star really was, proliferate.

It may even have been the proximity of the planets Jupiter and Saturn that likely occurred around 6 BC. I thought of that the other night, since Jupiter is very bright in the southeastern sky just now, along the East Coast of the US. You can even take high powered binoculars and see some of its moons sparkling around it.

But the fact is, most of us city dwellers have no idea what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about 100 years ago the night sky was illumined with billions of points of light, a breath-taking display most moderns have like experience of.

My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was about 15 years ago. I was visiting a priest friend in rural North Dakota. It was mid January, the very heart of winter, and the sky was cloudless, the temperature was just below zero, the humidity very low (thus, no haze). But the wind was light so we took a night time walk. Only an occasional street lamp lit the ground. As we got away from the town, just about half a mile, I looked up and couldn’t believe my eyes.

What is that?” I asked, “Are clouds coming in?
What do you mean?” asked my friend, “There are no clouds.”
What is all that?” I asked arching my arm upward.
He smiled, and said, “They are stars….that is the Milky Way.

I was both astounded and felt a tinge of anger that such a view had been deprived me all my life. So this is what the ancients saw every night. This is what inspired the psalmist to write, The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows forth the work of His hand….night unto night takes up the message (Ps 19:1ff). This is what God meant when he told Abraham “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5).

Frankly, on the east coast of the U.S. I can count the stars. But the true night sky is astonishing in the number of stars. An old hymn says:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim…..

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale…
While all the stars that round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round our dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

If there is ever a widespread power outage on the East Coast, I pray it will happen on a cloudless and un-humid night. If it does I will bid my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.

As the Magi beheld a star, we moderns may think we know what they saw. But I have come to discover most of us city dwellers have little idea, really at all. The sky the ancients nightly saw and even some now see, in rural regions, is more glorious than most of us ever imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is divine.

This video, in the second half,  shows some wonderful views of the stars in the night sky in high definition. Indeed, if your monitor is a good one, maximize the view of this video, which shows nicely even on larger screens.

27 Replies to “Have You Ever Really Seen the Stars? Most city dwellers have no idea of the glory the ancient Magi saw”

  1. But how did the Magi know, and why did the Holy Spirit express in the Gospel of Matthew, that they had followed “his star in the East” [Matt 2:2, RSV], that is, a star specifically signalling the birth of the “King of the Jews” from the standpoint of the Magi? How can it be “his” star? What does this say about what Matthew actually intended about how we are to understand the role/value of a “star” in signalling the birth of a human and divine Savior?

    Why do the stars in an image above the head of Our Lady represent the Apostles? Why a star? Why not a dot or a square or a triangle? Why a star?

    From Genesis 15:5 and 22:17, RSV (speaking to Abram):
    And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”…I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore.

    From Genesis 26:4, RSV (repeating the promise to Isaac):
    I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give to your descendants all these lands…

    From Genesis 37:8 – 9 RSV (Joseph dreams a prophecy):
    His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him yet more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” [11 stars….who are they?]

    From Exodus 32:13, RSV (Moses remembers God’s promise to Abraham):
    Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’

    From Numbers 24:17, RSV Bible:
    I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not nigh:
    a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
    it shall crush the forehead of Moab,
    and break down all the sons of Sheth.

    From Gospel of Matthew 2:2, 7, 9-10, RSV Bible:
    “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him”…Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared…When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy…

    Acts 7:41-43, RSV Bible [which refers to the worship of a star-god as in Amos 5:26]:
    And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and rejoiced in the works of their hands.
    But God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
    ‘Did you offer to me slain beasts and sacrifices, forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
    ‘And you took up the tent of Moloch,
    and the star of the god Rephan,
    the figures which you made to worship;
    and I will remove you beyond Babylon.’

    In 1 Col 15:37 – 42, St. Paul uses the star in his explanation of the Resurrection:
    And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.
    But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
    For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.

    In 2 Peter 1:19, St. Peter refers to a “morning star”:
    And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

    Finally, the Book of Revelations uses the star very symbolically –

    Rev 2:26-29, RSV:
    He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, I will give him power over the nations, and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received power from my Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

    Rev 8:10 – 11, RSV:
    The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the fountains of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died of the water, because it was made bitter.

    Rev 9:1 – 2, RSV:
    And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key of the shaft of the bottomless pit; he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.

    Rev 22:16, RSV:
    “I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.”

    It is interesting to note the use of the imagery of the star by the apostles – St. Matthew, St. Peter, St. John and St. Paul and to contrast that usage with the meaning which the Magi [gentiles?] placed upon the imagery of the star.

    Why does the Holy Spirit place so much importance upon the imagery of the star? Also, why did God use the star to draw the Magi to Jesus Christ? What does that mean for the rest of the world? Why the use of the term “morning star”? What is the real meaning of “morning star” and what does it mean for the “morning star” to rise in our hearts?

      1. Well, it seems that the term “star” can mean different things to different people and can be given different meanings in the Scriptures. It is somewhat of a mystery – the existence of actual stars are a mystery as well.

    1. Thank you for these remarks! A great reflection for this Epiphany which I am grateful to share.

  2. One more…Rev 12:3 – 6, RSV [because it is often explained that these stars are the fallen angels]:
    And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

  3. Is there a place near us that the children can go and see. Maybe a midnight fieldtrip for the teens. Also the Naval Observatory is on Mass Avenue. I think you can arrange tours for the younger children. I`’ll float this idea aro6und with our Youth Dire,tor. See you under the stars with the awe and beauty of God.

    1. It’s kind hard on the east coast since light pollution travels far and wide with the high levels of humidity in the lower atmosphere. The best time to go out past the Appalachians would be on one of the coldest and clearest nights of the year.

  4. Father,

    I grew up on the prairie adjacent North Dakota and you are so right about the stars. It’s difficult to explain to someone who has never seen that. My parents live on a farm 200 miles west of Bismarck in Montana and there is no light pollution to obscure the view. It really is amazing. I miss that.

      1. Don’t go telling everyone how awesome North Dakota is – they’re gonna have trouble keeping all the riff-raff out.

        It’s true though, between Billings and Fargo, some 600 miles, the sky is black and the stars are vivid. It’s wonderful.

  5. I know just how you feel. I lived on farm in rural NW Minnesota for about seven years and I never tired of gazing at the stars. I truely hate all the city lights, especially the street lights and house and yard lights. I realize it is a trade off for security and motorized safety but a poor one in my mind.

    1. a poor one indeed. True darkness is something most eastern Americans have never experienced. Even at night, in my bedroom, the light of the street comes through the corner of the windows.

  6. Another great view, if one can manage, is the northern lights. I grew up in Canada just north of North Dakota and used to see them at night as a tiny display way to the north so that I used to wonder about such descriptions as “the northern lights were running wild” by U.S. singer Johnny Horton and other grand phrases by poet Robert Service (Calfornia, B.C. Canada, Alaska, Yukon Canada, France WW1, etc.) and others who described them so gloriously.
    Then, when in the Canadian Infantry during the Cold War, we were chasing rumours of Soviet infiltrators in the arctic in January and I got to see them fill the sky.
    Like the bottom edges of rippilng curtains that were both many miles high and wide with so many of them that their movement was like a massive celestial waltz. The tempo seemed the same.
    I just couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by God’s glorious creation – especially when considering how small they truly were when compared to the rest of His works.
    I wonder if there may be other readers who’ve seen them so huge (or more so) who can describe them even better than I can since my words are ok for a story but not great desciptivlely.

      1. I saw them once in Florida, of all places, so you would have opportunities from time to time to see them in Washington — if only the light pollution were not so bad!

      2. Specifically, it was Overstreet, Florida, latitude 30 N, and in the late 1980’s. At first I thought they were ships’ running lights reflecting off fog, but the rays did not converge on the horizon as they should have; besides, we eventually drove up on the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and saw that these lights were much higher. I considered the possibility that the Air Force might have been using luminous gas to study wind patterns, but my dad would have known about that from his job (and that’s way too obvious to be a secret). The next day there were stories of the aurora being seen unusually far south.

  7. A fascinating post at your site, especially in terms of it’s strong appeal to antiquity.

    I do have some concerns with the use of words like “error” “terribly misguided” inauthentic, over correction, misguided etc are an unnecessarily sharp rebuke.

    The exact reality of the star is, to my mind, ultimately mysterious and is best left in that realm. Fr. Cornelius, whom you quote, has things a little too well figured out to my mind, in actually trying to speak of it as “a condensed mass of dust and air which was illuminated and moved about by angels.” Why be that specific?

    Even if some roots of this thinking can be found in the Fathers and doctors, I would still have the personal preference to allow the mystery to remain largely unspecified as Scripture does. It is after all the source document, and specifications beyond its data are speculative.

    I see no real harm in some speculating about it, being this star or that, or a comet, or the coming together of planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, or of compressed dust and air, as long as we are all clear that these are speculations of what is ultimately mysterious and unspecified.

  8. Msgr. Charles Pope,

    When I was in the USMC, I was deployed on a ship and was flouting aroung in the Red Sea for about a month. It was miserably hot inside the boat because it was an older vessel, before they equiped them with effective air conditioning. So it was like being locked in a car during a hot summer day. Constant sweating, heat rashes and all. Well to make a long story short. Me and my buddy would go up to the weather deck at night with a drink and try to cool off. The first night I saw what looked like clouds. Then next night, I saw the sky, and the clouds looked exactly the same, and then it hit me, they were not clouds but stars. I was absolutely astonished. In 20 years of living in suburbia, I had never seen the Milky Way until that night on the Red Sea. It was majestic.

  9. It wasn’t a “star” or a “planet” or a “super-nova” or “comet” or anything of that nature — at least, according to the Catholic tradition.

    Pope Benedict must have a different understanding of Catholic tradtion. He certainly is quite content with the idea that it was an actual, physical, astronomical phenomenon, part of the “language of creation” —

    “What kind of people were they? The experts tell us that they belonged to the great astronomical tradition that had developed in Mesopotamia over the centuries and continued to flourish. But this information of itself is not enough. No doubt there were many astronomers in ancient Babylon, but only these few set off to follow the star that they recognized as the star of the promise, pointing them along the path towards the true King and Saviour. They were, as we might say, men of science, but not simply in the sense that they were searching for a wide range of knowledge: they wanted something more. They wanted to understand what being human is all about. They had doubtless heard of the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17). They explored this promise. . . .

    “The wise men followed the star. Through the language of creation, they discovered the God of history. To be sure – the language of creation alone is not enough. Only God’s word, which we encounter in sacred Scripture, was able to mark out their path definitively. Creation and Scripture, reason and faith, must come together, so as to lead us forward to the living God. There has been much discussion over what kind of star it was that the wise men were following. Some suggest a planetary constellation, or a supernova, that is to say one of those stars that is initially quite weak, in which an inner explosion releases a brilliant light for a certain time, or a comet, etc. This debate we may leave to the experts. The great star, the true supernova that leads us on, is Christ himself. He is as it were the explosion of God’s love, which causes the great white light of his heart to shine upon the world. . . .”
    Pope Benedict, Homily, Solemnity of the Epiphany 2012

  10. Every so often, in a fit of traffic-inspired misanthropy, my husband or I will declare to the other a determination to move to Wyoming when we retire because its is much less densely-populated than the DC region. Neither of us has set foot in Wyoming, but part of what attracts us to a less-urban area is having an unimpeded view of the heavens. The light pollution in this area is so awful that lifting one’s eyes to view the heavens is nearly pointless.

    Cut off from the glorious wonders God has created in the skies, it should be no surprise that many of us lack any sense of how small and insigificant we really are…that many of us think the world revolves around us…that we think the Church should “get with the times” and fit her teachings to our worldview.

    Would that we all could stand on a MIdwestern plain, and see the stars for ourselves. Pictures and planetariums (planetaria??) just can’t complete with the real thing…there is no way for man to fully capture the glory of God’s creation.

  11. I don’t think it is possible for us to know what they saw.

    For one thing, according to BABYLONIAN STAR LORE by Gavin White, the Mesopotamians would use the word usually translated as “star” not only for stars, planets, and comets, but also for whole constellations or even meteorological events like a ring around the moon.

    Secondly, their real techniques for making predictions would have been valuable trade secrets. The astrological texts that were copied out by students on clay tablets or translated into Greek and Latin were probably just the basics for non-specialists — they’d have been stupid to have given up their meal tickets. Even so, they attached a confusing set of nicknames (like calling a planet by the name of a constellation) to further confuse outsiders.

    The thing that has never really made sense to me was how the “star” could have “rested” over ONE SPECIFIC HOUSE. Whatever that meant, it was pretty clearly something that would have made sense only from within their system. I am confident that you or I or the entire physics and astronomy faculty of Harvard University could have seen the sky that night without noticing anything spectacular, let alone anything identifying a specific building. After all, there is no record of the local Judean population, including the court of King Herod, noticing anything out of the ordinary.

  12. I can totally identify with your sentiment, Monsignor. I moved to a rural area and basically saw the Milky Way for the first time just a few years ago. I share your sense of outrage and sympathy for those who will never see it! When my brother visits me from Toronto he always makes sure to spend some time outside at night, gazing upward.

  13. I am an avid amateur astronomer who knows what its like to stand under a dark sky, I would like to include my favorite star from Scripture in this discussion, the Star of Esther. It’s my favorite star because it also appears on the garments of Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima. Like the Old Testament Esther, Our Lady of the Rosary will save those devoted to Her Immaculate Heart from the foreign power intent on our destruction, which is the modern world.

  14. I purchased the DVD “The Star of Bethlehem” at my local Catholic bookstore after my daughter, a Thomas Aquinas College graduate, recommended the video to me. My family watched it last night. Though it is a not a Catholic documentary, there is nothing contrary to our faith about this man’s treatment of the Bethlehem star. Rick Larson, a Lutheran, undertook this research on his own using astronomy software and produced the DVD as a result. Please check it out at Amazon or at the website: http://bethlehemstar.net/ . I found the video to be simply amazing. It reminds me of current research about the Our Lady of Guadalupe tilma, modern technology helps us understand and accept the miraculous, the science underscores the divine. This DVD even explains the stars of the book of Revelation concerning the woman clothed with the sun and other scriptural references to stars, and the nighttime sky around the time of the crucifixion. It’s fascinating. Thank you.

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