How do I read the stars in the night sky?

Benjamin Church meets World

A favorite game from my boyhood was flashlight tag. We lived in the country, and on summer nights after it was dark, one person with a flashlight would try to find everyone hidden in the night. Sometimes, hiding along the edge of a fence or a row of bushes, I would lay on my back and gaze up at the stars in the night sky. Although I had learned that they were billions of miles away, they seemed like glitter on a dome that covered the earth. In fact, it was easy to imagine that the stars were pin holes in a darkness that covered the earth, and they were put there so the light of some far-off Heaven could leak into our world and give us courage.

One summer as a young man, I went camping in a state park in Wisconsin. We had driven into a corner of the Door Peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan, and our campsite was on the far side of a lake, which we visited by boat. We were far enough from civilization that after the sun went down, a whole rich expanse of stars appeared, filled with myriads of lights that I was never able to see before. All my life, when I looked up at the sky, I had never been far enough from man-made lights to see the depths of the universe and the great multitude of stars in such detail.

In that moment I understood the wonder our ancestors had for the stars. They would gaze at them for hours, trying to see a pattern, because it seemed impossible that such an evocative display could simply be meaningless. They discovered animals and even a set of twins in the constellations, and found stories of heroes from the past. Others tried to read the stars to find warnings from the gods or decode the future, but these were only guesses: no one was able to truly read them.

Modern science was finally able to interrogate the stars with telescopes and physics. They learned that the stars are enormous, and they are formed when the simplest matter, elemental gases, coagulated and “caught fire” under the pressure of gravity. The stars appear to be fixed in the heavens, but they are actually flying apart at great speed and all of the heavens is in motion. Scientists can read the history of the universe written in the stars, and tell us that the whole universe started from one “big bang”. All the matter and energy in the universe, and time itself, began from a single point at a single instant, and exploded outward, forming the universe where once there was nothing. As this matter rushed outward and began to cool, it coagulated into the trillions of stars in the galaxy.

Science has helped us understand what the stars are, but even more importantly, we are now we are able to decode what the stars mean, thanks to another “big bang” of cosmic proportions. The infinite God, creator of the universe, compressed Himself into a single point, into a single moment, the moment of the Incarnation two millennia ago. Jesus Christ was not just another twinkling person among the billions of men and women who fill the span of time – Jesus was the infinite God, made finite in human form, and from this explosion, the love and truth of God has been expanding outward, filling the whole world.

We now know that “God is love”, and that the whole universe and everything in it was created by God’s power, but also by His love. Love seeks out someone who will respond in love, and God’s love is so powerful that it calls into existence people who are able to love, so that there will be a response to the great love of God. This is the meaning of the universe; to give a stage on which God can profess his love and make his proposal. This is also the meaning of each human life, to answer “Yes” or “No” to the offer to enter into a relationship with God.

This is how to read the stars in the night sky:
– First, the immense burning lights teach us the wisdom and power of God. A star is a masterpiece of engineering. Gravitational forces crush the star so much that the molecules at its heart goes into fusion. The star is a cosmic pyre, in which atomic particles are being immolated to give life and light to the universe. The surface of a star is stormy and tumultuous, yet at the same time, the enormous energy which radiates outward so perfectly balances the force of gravity that the star is remains stable and steady for most of its life. It is hard to imagine the power of a star, and yet God has created more of them than we can ever count.

– Second, we can read God’s love for us in the stars. These billions and billions of stars are left over from the project to create a home for human beings. The infinite power and wisdom of God is placed at the service of tiny human beings. Only one star, out of billions, was chosen to anchor the planet on which God would make human life. God left all the other stars to show the infinite care with which he formed a little oasis for life in the middle of a vast universe. What great love God has shown for the human race! This is what a Christian sees when he looks up at the stars.

I would like to end this post right here but I really cannot, because gazing at the stars brings to mind the tragedy of the modern world. Although the planet today is filled with Christians, nearly a third of all human beings, few believers realize they can read the stars. This is especially true in the regions which are seen as leaders: Europe and North America. A modern person, who has so much power and convenience at his finger tips, is nearly incapable of seeing the stars, because in the rare moments when he pauses long enough to look up at the stars, the glare of human lights, street lights, house lights, stop lights, billboards and advertisements, fill the sky with such a glow that he can hardly see the stars.

This seems to be a metaphor for the way most people, and most Christians, experience modern life. After centuries of learning and longing, man has finally been able to read the stars, and the tragedy is that we have gotten bored, gone inside, and turned on the television. We have filled our lives with a man-made glow: flashing televisions, chattering radios, flickering smart-phones, the shimmering flat-screen that has become a store window for nearly limitless shopping. All of this, although having some tangible good, has kept us isolated and insulated from God, from our neighbors, and from the beautiful world.

Unless we deliberately make space for silence, unless we know how to “turn out the lights”, the constant stream of light keeps us isolated from the light of Heaven. The Church needs to rediscover the wonder of living in God’s presence, of enjoying each one of His simple gifts. The more of His gifts that we leave unopened and neglected, the more we lose sight of His wisdom, power, and love. +