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.