December 24, 2007

The Star

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.

         -- T. S. Eliot, "The Journey of the Magi"

Theirs was the Age of Myth; a world where night was not clad in the web of lights that now obscures the stars. It was a world lit by flaring torches, dim oil lamps, guttering candles, the phases of the moon and the broad shimmering river of the Milky Way. When the sun went down and night ascended, life withdrew into homes. Only the very rich or the very poor were abroad.

The night sky, now so thin and distant, so seldom really seen, was to them thick and close at hand. They reclined on their hill sides, their roofs, or in rooms built for viewing the moon and the stars. They watched it all revolve above them. Remembered. Kept records. They saw beings in the heavens -- giants, animals, the origins of myth -- and knew that in some way it was all connected. They studied the patterns of it all and from those repeating patterns fashioned the first science, astrology.

And, like all our vaunted sciences since, they looked to astrology to give them hints about the future, about what they should do and whom they should become. They looked to it then, as many look to it now, to remove their doubt.

In time stronger, more intricately argued sciences would rise upon the structures of the proto-sciences of astrology and alchemy. These new fact-based sciences would push the first sciences into the realm of myth, speculation, superstition and popular fantasy.

The new sciences, you see, were much, much more about "Reality." They would never be tossed aside as so many playthings of mankind's youth. The authority of astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry and others was as certain as the pole star. Unlike astrology and alchemy, they would never be questioned; they would be built upon. The new would encompass the old in one endless and eternal conservation of sense and sensibility. We could see (almost) into the moment of Creation. We could see (almost) into the mute heart of matter. We had the proven method. We had the hard evidence. Nothing was, in time, beyond our knowing. There was no doubt. We were Alpha and Omega. Our science was eternal and as deeply ground in truth as... well, as astrology was in 5 B.C.

Somewhere around 5 B.C. three of the world's leading astronomers/astrologers noticed something unusual in the sky. It could have been a comet, it could have been a supernova, it could have been a rare conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Whatever it was, it was strange enough for them to travel towards it. Or so it is said. Or so it is written. Or so it is remembered from the time of myth.

Myth or history? What is the reality of this road trip towards an obscure birth in a wretched town, during a not very pleasant passage in history, over 2,000 years in our past?

We do not know. We cannot know.

We have only shards of pottery and fragments of texts snatched from desert caves, or urged up out of the soil with tin trowels and brushes. We have only the sifted detritus of history; a global jigsaw puzzle where ninety-nine percent of the pieces have long gone to dust.

It is beyond our gift and our resources to ever know the difference between an inspiring folk tale and the eyewitness accounts of something that, even today, would occupy the realm of the miraculous. For today, it would seem, in the realm of the mysteries, we no longer have any time for the good or the beautiful; no room for miracles. We have only time for denigration.

In 2004 Time and Newsweek , our two slowly dissolving newsweekly magazines of the US endeavored, in their ham-fisted way, to gin up some circulation with articles that purported to "examine" the miracles surrounding the intersection of the divine with the world. We shall probably see the same sort of thing this year. The cheapening of the spirit in this culture, by those whose lamp of the soul burns low, is now as predicable as the phases of the moon.

In the manner of these publications, and the habits of the sodden intellects that grind them out for small silver, a lot of time was spent on the issue of the Virginity of Mary, the mother of Christ. It's was scurrilous bit of work. A "hit piece" on Mary, in the jargon of the trade. For all the preening of these publications, it was all just a bit of thinly veiled anti-Christian porn, a sop to the secular hedonists in search of a cheap thrill who still bothered to imbibe the pap.

Beneath all the buffed prose and appeals to experts and quotes from scholars, those portions of the articles rose to little more than the coarse chortling of fraternity boys in the early drunken hours of the morning: "A virgin? Right! Sure. Any wife'd tell her husband that if she suddenly..."

In the offices of Time and Newsweek, there is no room for wonder beyond the fact that they are still publishing and still making payroll. Anything else, anything that might have within it the spark of the divine, is fit for nothing except denigration. This belief squats at the cold dead center of their editorial philosophy, a philosophy they share with untold millions of our coarsened fellow citizens. And still they cannot comprehend why year after year, no matter how cheap they price their subscriptions, their circulation continues to decline. In none of their editorial meetings do any of those attending look about them and declare that they have become "an alien people clutching their gods" in a land that finds them more and more irrelevant.

We will leave them in their conference rooms high above the Avenue of the Americas, and wish them a "Happy Holiday. Have a good one." It is far more interesting to ponder, instead, those ancient ancestors who had no doubts that what they had seen in the heavens was unusual enough to travel.

In 5 B.C. "travel" was not something undertaken lightly. It involved, across distances that would seem trivial today, risks of life and death at every turn. It required wealth and endurance. Few traveled for pleasure. To travel at all required a motivation far beyond the ordinary. So, at the very least, while we cannot know what was in the sky, we can be certain it was something very unusual.

In his short story, "The Star," Arthur C. Clarke's Jesuit narrator of the far future discovers the remnants of a civilization destroyed by a violent nova so that its light might announce the birth of Christ on Earth. The story has that ironic twist that is popular with authors and pleasing to readers. I remember it as making an impression on me when I was around 12 years old. But the story does not age well because the science of it does not age well, even though it is less than 50 years old.

In 1957, when I was twelve years old, we all lived in a far smaller universe with far fewer stars for God to destroy by way of cosmic birth announcements. Now that the inventory of His stars has increased a billion fold, I think it is safe to say He could have found one to suit His purpose that didn't involve destroying a blameless alien race. He could simply pick one deeper in the field and, well, ramp up the volume. That sort of thing is just an afterthought once You've got omnipotence. It might even do double duty if You could use a star in an area that might need a few more heavy elements across a billion or two years.

Sages and mystics, Kepler and Clarke, and a host of others have all had their turns with the story of The Star. In the end it remains what it was when it began, a story. The story of a road trip by three astrologers, kings, wise men -- who saw something special in the heavens and determined to follow it wherever it led, no matter what the cost.

To see something special; something beyond you. To follow it wherever it leads. To always remain prepared for miracle and amazement. That's the inner music of the story of The Star. Like all stories that survive, it is one of the heart and not of the head, and like the heart, it will endure.

"Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt."

To have "evidence and no doubt." That is what those that put themselves forward as our "wise men" seem to propose to us day after day from their sterile rooms high above the avenues. They have the "indubitable evidence" from which we should derive, they insist, doubt about all that for which they have no evidence. First and foremost in their blinded vision is their iron requirement that we should doubt the original myths that have made us and sustained us as individuals and as a people across the centuries. In their pointless world, they would have us cast off the old myths and embrace their "new and improved myths -- complete with evidence;" myths made of purposeless matter "hovering in the dark."

And seeing what they have become, we turn. Turn away.

Instead, every year a bit more it seems, a tide has shifted in the hearts of men and we turn like a lodestone to the deeper myths of the human heart; that place where The Star will always shine, always within and yet always beyond us.

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Posted by Vanderleun at December 24, 2007 4:18 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Dang! but I'm glad neither you nor I are as smart as all those Big City KnowItAlls. I re-read Thomas Kuhn last year, and realized how incomplete all our vaunted science really is: Our science was eternal and as deeply ground in truth as... well, as astrology was in 5 B.C.

Where do these journalists, who barely passed freshman bio and bonehead stats, get off preaching Revealed Scientific Wisdom to us in the cheap seats? Hasn't it ever occurred to them that some of their classmates--cum laude grads in the sciences--aren't journalists, and know just how ignorant and patronizing their articles are?

As I wrote in a blog about a much more trivial matter: "...if I had just downed a pitcher of beer, and met an AP reporter who was on fire, I'd excuse myself and go to the men's room."

Posted by: Mike Anderson at December 18, 2006 9:50 PM

Holy Moly, I wish I could write like this... Amazing!

Posted by: dave at December 19, 2006 5:47 PM

That was a nice essay, Gerard.

Incidentally, a few years ago I read a book review in Sky & Telescope magazine. For centuries astronomers have tried to find an astronomical explanation for the Star of Bethlehem, but none of the hypotheses have been satisfactory. The book's author tried to consider what Middle Eastern astrologers 2000 years ago would have considered important. His hypothesis, therefore, is that the "star" was not an actual apparition in the sky but rather a horoscope predicting the birth of a great king. He even gives a date: April 17, 6 B.C.

Here is a link to Sky & Telescope's page featuring an excerpt of the article. Unfortunately there is a fee for the whole thing.

Here is the info about the book (I tried to link it on but hates Safari for some reason):

The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar (Rutgers University Press, 1999). 208 pages. ISBN 0-8135-2701-5.

Posted by: rickl at December 19, 2006 6:39 PM

Ah, yes. This is why you're in my links. Well done, sir.

Posted by: B. Durbin at December 19, 2006 8:01 PM

To expand on my earlier comment: I'll have to type this by hand because no alternative exists, and because this is too important to let drop. The following is from the Sky & Telescope review, by Bradley E. Schaefer (I have not read the book):

"The first two advances are merely correcting a typical error made in historical studies. Evaluating old societies by modern standards and assigning motivations to historical events in accordance with current principles is an easy trap to fall into. It is now blindingly obvious–in retrospect–that a fundamental error has been made and how to correct it.

Molnar's third advance is to identify a unique date for which the regal portents were the highest possible and indicated a birth in Judea. On April 17, 6 B.C., the planets aligned in the most auspicious configuration imaginable. Such a powerful horoscope could have driven the wise men to seek out the divine king. This date happens to be near the middle of the time span (roughly 10 to 4 B.C.) in which historians have placed the birth of Christ.

What is so magical about the horoscope? In astrological terms, the Sun was exalted (made most powerful) in Aries, the beneficent Venus was also exalted, the three rulers of the Aries trine were all in Aries, both the Sun and the Moon had their planetary attendants nearby, Jupiter was at its heliacal rise position in Aries, and the Moon occulted Jupiter that day. Wow, this would have blown the turban off any astrologer. And the primacy of Aries would have pointed directly at Judea."


"Let me summarize the implications of the new paradigm in my own words: First, don't but any other book on the Star of Bethlehem, because the old astronomical views are guaranteed to be irrelevant. Second, the new astrological paradigm forces the realization that astrology was an important force in historical times so that the disregard of the topic by most historians is blatant chauvinism. Third, the existence of a stunning astrological horoscope for April 17, 6 B.C., announcing the birth of a great king in Judea will now force scholars of religion to reconcile the event with their own beliefs."

Posted by: rickl at December 19, 2006 10:10 PM

One problem with the "Star as an astronomical event" hypothesis is that (1) the sky turns, so that what is in the East at dawn is in the West at twilight, and (2) a star in the East from Cairo leads you to an entirely different place than a star in the East from Ephesus.

Posted by: ZZMike at January 4, 2007 10:14 AM

"The light of the body is the eye. If, therefore, thine eye be single,thine whole body will be full of Light."

Posted by: FamouslyUnknown at December 22, 2007 1:18 PM

With all our power and our arrogance; with the capability to make species extinct, destroy forests and poison the sea; with the fire that burns in the hearts of stars at our command - still, despite all that, we are sometimes reminded of our smallness.

One moment for me was close to thirty years ago, yet I still remember it as if it was yesterday. I was a student in the days when the music variously known as pomp rock and heavy metal was popular. If I remember correctly, it was something by Led Zeppelin, at the last college party I ever went to. Slightly after the beginning of the piece (they went in for entire-side-of-LP pieces) something was added to the bass line. A lightning storm, several miles away. Quite a big one. Heavy metal on big speakers with Thor on drums - quite impressive, as was the light show.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at December 24, 2007 5:45 AM

Peace, Hope & Light . . .

- The Light Within . . .

Posted by: gabrielpicasso at December 24, 2007 8:30 AM
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