One of the central elements in the Epiphany story is the star. There are numerous theories as to what exactly it was. It may not have been a star at all, but Jupiter or Saturn, which are said to have come quite close to Earth around the year 6 B.C. I thought of that the other day because Jupiter is currently bright in the southeastern sky a couple of hours before sunrise along the East Coast of the U.S. With high-powered binoculars one can even see some of its many moons.
Most of us city dwellers have no idea what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about a hundred years ago the night sky was illuminated with thousands of points of light, a breathtaking display many moderns have rarely if ever experienced.
My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was about 20 years ago. I was visiting a priest friend in rural North Dakota in mid-January, and the sky was cloudless, the temperature just below zero, and the humidity very low (thus, no haze). We decided to go for a nighttime walk away from the town. After we’d gone about half a mile I happened to look up; I couldn’t believe my eyes!
“What is that?” I asked my friend. “Are those clouds coming in?”
“What do you mean? There are no clouds,” he replied.
“Then what is all that?” I asked, pointing upward.
He smiled and answered, “They’re stars; that’s the Milky Way.”
I was astounded by the sight, but at the same time I felt a bit angry that I’d been deprived of such a view all my life. Is this what the ancients saw every night? This must be 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 must be 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, from where I live in Washington, D.C., I can count the stars, but the true night sky displays an astonishing number of stars. “The Spacious Firmament on High,” an old hymn by Joseph Addison, has these lyrics:
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, dry night. If it does, I will bid my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.
We may think we know what the Magi saw as they beheld the star, but I doubt most of us have any idea at all. The sky that the ancients saw every night, the sky that is visible to those in rural areas even today, is more glorious than many 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 some years ago featuring photographs of the night sky interspersed with more fanciful images:
The second half of this next video shows some wonderful high-definition pictures of the stars in the night sky. If your monitor is a good one, you might want to maximize the view—it displays nicely even on large screens.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Have You Ever Really Seen the Stars?