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Count The Stars If You Can! A Meditation on the Glory of the Night Sky Most Modern People Never See

February 21, 2016 8 Comments

2.21blogIn the first reading of Mass on Sunday (the 2nd Sunday of Lent), we read,

The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be” (Gen 15:5-6).

I wonder if any of us city-dwellers have any idea of the glory that Abram saw as he looked upward that night, indeed most nights.

Most of us don’t realize 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; it was a breath-taking display that most of us probably haven’t experienced.

My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was about 20 years ago. I was visiting a priest friend (recently deceased) in rural North Dakota. It was mid-January, the very heart of winter. The sky was cloudless, the temperature was just below zero, and the humidity was very low (thus, no haze). But the wind was light so we took a nighttime walk. Only the light from an occasional house illuminated the ground. As we away from the town, only 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?” my friend responded. “There are no clouds.”
“Well then, what is all that?” I asked, arching my arm upward.
He smiled and replied, “Those are the stars. That’s the Milky Way.”

I was astounded, but also felt a tinge of anger that I’d been deprived of such a magnificent view 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 has an astonishing number. 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 that it will happen on a cloudless night with low humidity. If it does, I will ask my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.

We moderns may think we know what Abram saw when he looked up, but I believe that most of us city-dwellers really have little idea of what he could see. The sky that the ancients saw every night and that some in rural regions see even today is more glorious than most of us can imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is divine.

Here’s a video I put together featuring real photographs of the night sky, interspersed with more fanciful images. Some of the pictures depict what the night sky would look like if there without light pollution.

The second half of this next video (in high definition) shows some wonderful views of the stars in the night sky. If your monitor is a good one, you might want to maximize the view of this video; it shows nicely even on large screens.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Christine says:

    What I only recently noticed when reading this text and the following which describes the covenant ritual is that if read in context, ‘the sun sets’ in v.17 only AFTER Abram is told to count the stars. That means it was daytime! What a testament to Abram’s faith that while he could neither ‘see’ the stars not his defendants , he had faith that they would be!

  2. Summer Frost says:

    You reminded me of my favorite hymn from my Protestant childhood: By Johann W. Hey, 1837

    Can you count the stars of evening
    That are shining in the sky?
    Can you count the clouds that daily
    Over all the world go by?
    God the Lord, who doth not slumber,
    Keepeth all the boundless number;
    But He careth more for thee,
    But He careth more for thee.

    Can you count the birds that warble
    In the sunshine all the day?
    Can you count the little fishes
    That in sparkling waters play?
    God the Lord their number knoweth,
    For each one His care He showeth;
    Shall He not remember thee?
    Shall He not remember thee?

    Can you count the many children
    In their little beds at night,
    Who without a thought of sorrow
    Rise again at morning light?
    God the Lord, who dwells in heaven,
    Loving care to each has given;
    He has not forgotten thee,
    He has not forgotten thee.

  3. Daria says:

    My favorite scripture verse about the stars is from Baruch, chapter 3:

    He…before whom the stars at their posts
    shine and rejoice;
    When He calls them,
    they answer, “Here we are!”
    shining with joy for their Maker.

    I just love this image of the joyous, childlike, obedient stars. Here in northwest Pennsylvania we sometimes get beautifully clear nights with thousands of stars and the milky way visible. We even have a state park that is known as being the spot in the east that is the most free from light pollution. Cherry Springs State Park. Maybe you should bring you youth group camping here someday.

  4. Phyllis Cory says:

    Fourteen-year residents of Southwestern Montana, our family gathered often on the front deck of our mobile home to watch the night sky. In later year, the memories illuminated the Psalms. Thank you for this magnificent post.

  5. MikefromED says:

    What a wonderful homily preached by Fr Scalia at the funeral of his father. It made me think of the things that you have written about funeral homilies:
    I wonder if Fr Scalia had read your blog. I like to think so.

  6. Susan says:

    You simply must read Hopkins’ poem “Starlight Night”

    Gives me chills every time I read it. Imagine that the stars are little pinprick windows each allowing a pinhole view into Heaven.

  7. Patrick Costello says:

    Msgr. Pope, you might be interested in seeing pictures of the Southern Hemisphere sky, it allows you to see into the middle of the Milky Way (as opposed to the outer bands we see in the northern hemisphere) and the result is a stunning view of millions of stars on an average night.

  8. Sue Korlan says:

    I really miss the night sky now that I live in an urban area. And this reminds me of Rich Mullins’ song Sometimes by Step where he says, “Sometimes I think of Abraham; how one star he saw had been lit for me He was a stranger in this land And I am that no less than he and on the road to righteousness Sometimes the climb can be so steep I may falter in my steps but never beyond Your reach.” He grew up on a farm, so he undoubtedly saw the stars all the time.

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