By Tom Burns
December 15, 2013
Of all the stories of the Book, the one that captures my admiration most is the brief tale of the Magi, those mystical stargazers who saw a star and followed where it led them:
“Behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.’”
The Magi were, of course, astrologers, in those days, men of wisdom. They looked among the stars for signs and portents of great events and followed them to the ends of the Earth. I imagine them crossing cold, dangerous mountains and hot, endless deserts, their bodies oppressed by hunger and thirst, in their single-minded quest for the meaning embedded in that mysterious astronomical event. In their hearts, they must have been unsure what they would find, but their undying faith in the stars led them in the end to what they sought.
The star, which they saw in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with “exceedingly great joy.”
Like the Magi, we live in an uncertain and difficult time. I have often wondered whether human history produces any other kind. But if the stars tell us anything, they tell us that our universe is full of wonders to behold.
Our tiny portion of the universe may sometimes be filled with pain and sorrow; the greater whole from whence we came is beautiful beyond words.
In many ways, I envy the Magi. Granted, they knew little about the workings of the universe, but their skies were filled with stars. One great irony of our age is that we know so much more than the Magi about the size and scope of the universe, but our dependence on outside lighting has washed away the stars and made our personal universe seem so much smaller than that of our ancient forbears. The Magi saw the vastness of the cosmos with their eyes and felt it in their hearts. We read about it in books and wonder what happened to all the stars we saw when we were kids.
Still, some succor yet remains. Some fine, clear night, do something simple. Watch the moon set the west behind the trees.
We may thus know what the Magi could never have even guessed. You can know this: The moon is not setting. Earth is spinning at 680 miles per hour in the opposite direction from our latitude.
My first time was when I was twelve years old. At that critical moment in my life, I knew something, not in my head, deep in my heart where it truly counts. I live on a tiny ball of rock called Earth traveling through the empty reaches of a universe vast beyond the ability of my swelling heart to know.
Of course, if the sky is cloudy on Christmas, we must look for comfort elsewhere. May you find joy in friends and family this holiday season. In the end, those of us who love the universe and all its parts can still find a place or two where the stars still radiate with undiminished splendor.
The Magi looked up at the vault of heaven and found redemption and glory.
That experience is available to all of us if we take the time to travel, as the
Magi did, to some special, spiritual place where the stars still shine like diamond dust against the uncorrupted beauty of the night. May you all rejoice with exceedingly great joy as you look up at the universe and down at your living rooms at the wonders you might find there.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.