I first saw the Christmas Star in a college planetarium when I attended a special program, most likely for extra credit. It was a lecture designed to show what the Wise Men saw, and what they followed, pieced together by ancient and modern knowledge of the movement of the heavens. I was taking astronomy that fall semester, and was particularly dedicated to it, which was odd, because such dedication meant I had to climb the big hill to the Thompson Science Complex several times a week to sit in the dark and learn all the constellations for each season.
The planetarium was open for study sessions only in the afternoons and evenings and that I would willingly make this trek on darkening autumn afternoons is also odd, because I was a lazy student and thought all formal learning should stop before lunch.
Our final would require us to sit in the pitch-black room with a pointer in our hand. We would be instructed to close our eyes while they spun the sky around, mostly so we wouldn’t get sick, and then we were to begin, by looking up and saying,
“This is the summer sky. The major constellations are Cassiopeia the Queen,” while passing the pointer over all her stars, and then “This is Cygnus the Swan, Ursa Major…” and so on until we had properly named and pointed out the required constellations. Then they spun the sky again.
My roommate had the same class and we often went together to study the stars. But lots of times I went alone. I think what I liked about those afternoons was the solitude they provided, the cool dark of an empty auditorium, soft cushioned chairs circled beneath a dome of stars. I could think and breathe. Or simply breathe, and wonder a little about a universe too impossible to understand. To feel small, insignificant, and getting that this is just about exactly right.
There is a peace to be found in knowledge like that.
This week the Christmas Star returned, or what scientists have come to believe may have been the Christmas Star. And yet, it isn’t a star at all, but two planets aligned just so to blaze for a time as one brilliant light. I gazed over a field on the outskirts of town with strangers and waited until the orange flame of sunset fled the horizon. Staring at a place a little to the right of a waxing gibbous moon, the sky was dark, and dark, and darker still.
And then it wasn’t.
Hanging halfway between the moon and the horizon, Saturn and Jupiter met in a great conjunction, so close it appears not a fifth of our moon would fit between them. And they blazed as one to the naked eye, separating only when viewed through binoculars. It isn’t difficult to see how the Magi saw in it a sign, these stars as steady as a lantern, held aloft, come from out of nowhere to cast a beckoning light.
In this fourth week of Advent, we focus our minds on peace and the Wise Men are good stewards of that word. No frantic shepherds, these fellows, no boisterous and exuberant angels with trumpets and noisemakers, their scanty sashes blowing in a whirlwind of their own making. We see the three kings in profile, atop their camels, calmly traversing the deserts and plains. They approach slowly, serenely, peacefully, in every nativity play, in every imagining of their arrival.
They are the pure essence of peace and goodwill.
Thinking of the Christmas star, and the wise kings, while watching in a field with others called by a star, or what looks like a star, I was happy at our good fortune with a clear Kentucky night. The Ohio River Valley so often robs us of astronomical delights with cloudy skies or haze.
It is good to be reminded that expectation and hope and joy culminate in peace. In this quiet week, in this year of such sorrow, we can reach for peace and walk slowly with it, bearing it as a wise man might, with dignity and certainty and goodwill–which is another word for love.