Written In The Stars

On Christmas, we join the journey of shepherds and Magi. We listen for choirs of heavenly angels; we search the night sky for a star by which to navigate, and we long for the assurance that Love rules this universe – that we are not alone.

We look for a sign and hope to God the fragile flame of candles held aloft will somehow light the way—peace on earth and goodwill toward all people.

Yet wars rage and children become collateral damage through death, injury, and trauma. We know that the little town of Bethlehem is not still tonight; even Christmas Eve services have been canceled for fear of bloodshed.

Violence has robbed our own neighborhoods of a sense of security and well-being. Hunger comes knocking at an increasing number of doors in our country and city; that is, for those lucky enough to have homes. Many neighbors are unhoused and face a multitude of problems because this most basic need is unmet.

Loneliness is of epidemic proportion – as is its desperate cousin, opioid use disorder. It’s a sobering thought to imagine Jesus and his parents forced to become refugees fleeing the brutality of the Roman Empire among the much-maligned immigrants and asylum seekers at our southern border.

The Christmas journey begins by looking up. Shepherds were astonished by the light and joy of sky-borne angel messengers heralding good news—wise old astronomers pouring over star charts and peering into the heavens.

Tonight, we pause from hectic preparations, lay aside our work, and table the grief of particular loss and the sadness we feel about earth’s chaos to celebrate a birth. I invite us first to turn our gaze upward. Behold!

Behold the stunning images of space from the James Webb Telescope! Launched two years ago tomorrow, it is the most powerful telescope ever made, with infrared resolution revealing a dynamic universe beyond imagination. Because of the speed of light, Webb’s images allow us to peer back in time as well as into deep space to catch the luminous glimmers of the Big Bang, the evolving formation and destruction of stars, and glimpses of an expanding future.

They are, at the same time, our history, our present, and our destiny. The pictures: pillars of fiery gases and clouds of smoke, swirling comets and labyrinthine nebula, and even a fraction of the one septillion stars (that’s one with 24 zeros) our universe holds are simply mind-blowing. With the Psalmist, I am moved to wonder, O God, when I look at your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon, and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of us; what are we that you care for us?

These questions will not be answered by the brilliant scientists analyzing data sent back from the Webb telescope. No “theory of everything” is discernible.

In fact, I was amazed to learn that new information from this data has actually made things more complicated; it turns out the universe doesn’t strictly follow the basic laws of physics. Very small, unexpected forces can change things significantly.

A decimal point added to an estimation of, say, a particle’s location or velocity can reverberate through history and change the outcome billions of years later by way of the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory. Chaos in the heavens! Chaos on earth!

Look, friends. Science and religion need not be incompatible, much less enemies. Perhaps it’s too simplistic to make a clear distinction between the “what and how” of science and the “why” of faith, and we need the contributions of both to fully understand our place among the stars, as well as our earthbound glory and the spiritual power that deeply connects us to everything and everyone.

As one prominent cosmologist observed about the limitations of his discipline: for all our faith in materialism, we might never know. Our origins are written in the stars, and we are just learning how to read them. [Andrew Pontzen, quoted by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times, 23 September 2023]

Tonight, I suggest we fix our gaze on a much humbler view, the star of Bethlehem that guided the ancient version of astronomers to a scene both ordinary and extraordinary. Look at the image on your bulletin cover. It’s a photograph made by a friend who kindly gave me permission to use it. Taken in rural Colorado, where I grew up, its “star” is actually the uncommon “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, where their orbits appear to be close.

It may have been a phenomenon like this that drew shepherds and Magi to a tiny village in a forgotten corner of the world to worship a baby they sensed might be a game changer. Could this be the ruler who would establish a new realm of justice in their colonized lands? Could this be the one fulfilling ancient prophecies of a day when the lion would lie down with the lamb, when guns would be chopped and refashioned into garden tools, and peace would reign over all the earth? Could this be the spiritual leader who comes to heal human sorrows, reconcile, and restore us to the Love for which we are created?

Friends, there is a mystery in Christmas, but not magic. If it were so, God would have sprinkled fairy dust or waved a Divine hand over the chaos, and -poof!- all would be fixed. Instead, God came as a baby, vulnerable, dependent upon others for survival. The journey of Christmas begins by scanning the night sky and laser-focuses on a crying, helpless baby. Not a God content to reign among the stars, but Emmanuel, God-with-us. Love in the flesh.

I don’t usually turn to the NFL for spiritual guidance, but an ad I saw during a Broncos game caught my attention. It features videos of toddlers with a voice-over pointing out their liabilities. You can’t do anything. You can’t walk. You can’t stand up. You can’t aim. You can’t hit. You can’t play by the rules. You can’t catch. You can’t be like your old man. You are the original impossible – And then you spend a lifetime proving nothing is.

When young Mary expressed doubt about her impending motherhood, the angel messenger only smiled and responded, With God, nothing is impossible. We come again to worship the original impossible and imagine…
… A world where people live in peace and understanding.
… A world where everyone can meet their most basic needs.
…. Imagine communities where children laugh and play and sleep undisturbed.

Friends, our origins are written in the stars, but our lives are lived here on earth that’s in a world of hurt, among imperfect people with partial knowledge and mixed motives.

Yet it is here before a tiny baby that we meet a God who is mindful of us, who cares for us, who calls every one of us—Beloved.

Tonight, we worship the baby but don’t imagine for a moment that’s where the Christmas journey ends. Let us light candles that shine like stars in a dark world, ready to follow Jesus and prove that nothing is impossible.

Thanks be to God!


Feature Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI