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STARGAZING AND EPHIPHANY

January 6, 2017

Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that over the years some have called me Captain Kirk. Being identified with the Star Trek hero is not all bad. Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise captured the hearts and minds of multiple generations.

Star Wars created additional fans who explored galaxies far, far away from a darkened theatre while eating popcorn and gazing at the silver screen.  The popularity of these fantasies is indicative of the fascination humans have with the stars.

Epiphany is January 6 in the Christian calendar. It has been called a day for stargazers.  It is a time for those who face darkness by looking for the light, even the light of a single star. The magi from the East were neither the first nor the last of those who are drawn to the mysteries of heavenly lights.  Native Americans looked up to observe the constellations they named Big Bear and Little Bear. Ancient Greeks on the other side of the globe also peered skyward into the night, giving those constellations the same names, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Stargazers are dreamers. Copernicus faced the darkness of ignorance and declared our star, the sun, is the light at the center of our universe. Galileo offered a new vision of creation. As a result, he was vetoed by the darkness of the Inquisition.

The magi of ancient Persia were dreamers and stargazers. They were probably members of the Zoroastrian religion. They believed the heavens mirrored the events on earth. These wise men from ancient Persia gazed into the sky and saw an unusually bright star.  They believed it was a sign that a royal person had been born. Following the star, they traveled to Bethlehem to honor the child and to offer tribute.  This is the stellar event that we commemorate on Epiphany.

I, too, am a stargazer. The stars have always fascinated me.

Once in August, while at the beach, I had a clear view of the night sky.  I knew it would be the perfect time to witness the impressive display of a meteor shower. The moon was in the first phase.  On Sunday night, I walked to the end of a long boardwalk. There were no clouds, and the moon was faint. The stars were bright. A little after midnight, the show started. I stretched out on the wooden deck listening to the ocean and gazing into the dark sky. The sea breeze was refreshing; the meteor shower was spectacular.  As it turned out, that was the only clear night for viewing the stars while we were at the coast that year.

I remember standing on the tailgate of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) with a pair of binoculars on a cold February night in 1986, straining to see Halley’s Comet near the peak of its most recent pass of earth. The Comet was visible for about one week, so two nights later I took my children out in the middle of the night to see it. We could faintly see the cosmic traveler just above the horizon. If you missed it, don’t worry. Halley’s Comet will return in July 2061.

Just eleven years after Halley’s Comet zipped by, Hale-Bopp made a grand appearance. I saw the comet clearly from the Morningside Baptist Church parking lot during the daytime in the spring of 1997. If you missed Hale-Bopp, I’m sorry. It will be back again in 4385.

These celestial sights pale in comparison to what the ancient magi must have seen. The star compelled them to follow. It must have been something to behold!

So, the magi followed and according to the Gospel of Matthew, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshiped him.” (2:10-11)

Epiphany is the time for stargazing, and the brightest of all is the one in the manger. Wise men and women still kneel and worship him. “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

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