I hope you won’t mind if I indulge for a moment, and tell you about our New Year’s Eve. You see, we had to drive back to Allendale that evening, in order to be here for the Fire; and it was a perfect night. We stopped the car at Nenthead and got out. The Milky Way arced above us: unbelievable billions of stars. Light in our sky that has been travelling for eternity. It was stunningly beautiful. Freezing cold, but stunningly beautiful.
Mostly, of course, amateur astronomy in this country is a pretty much a disappointment: I think there was a lunar eclipse again last year, but we didn’t see it as was completely obscured by cloud. On Friday night we were supposed to be able to see the Quadrantid meteor shower, but the sky was clouded up, as usual.
But whenever we enjoy a clear night, most of us can identify a few constellations: Orion, and the Plough, and perhaps others. My son can simply direct his smart phone at the sky, and it will tell him the actual names we give to individual stars that we see. Most of these names come from twelfth century Arab astronomers, apparently: they understood the sky centuries before we did here in the west. Are the Arab astronomers descendants of the wise men we hear about each Christmas? It seems such an improbable story in so many ways – three kings from Persian lands afar: wise men, magi from the east. What became of the gifts, we ask ourselves? How could they navigate all that distance? How did they evade Herod’s soldiers as they returned home?
But we are not stargazers, and so we don’t understand people who are. We leave it all to Professor Cox and Brian May, now that Patrick Moore has passed on. Most people in this country cannot even see more than a few dozen stars anyway, so bad is the light pollution in our towns and cities and even villages like ours. Our gaze remains earthbound.
But Arab astronomers had the whole sky mapped. With vast night skies, unpolluted by streetlights and headlamps, they could see many more stars than we can. They were masters of stellar navigation. With no road signs, no A-Z and no sat nav, they had to be. Many of us can just about find the Pole Star, on a clear night; but they knew their skies. They could spot a comet or a supernova, or any other strange astronomical event. And then ask themselves what it might mean. And set off, even; to follow a star that newly graces the heavens; and which, in their eyes, portends something wonderful.
Without the ability to navigate, you can stay where you are, but you cannot journey. When the fog is thick, even familiar roads confuse and disorient us; and the night closes in around us like a shroud. Nothing looks normal; and we begin to wonder where on earth we are. Street lamps are put there so we can see our way in the dark. But not on country roads. Cats’ eyes help, but not all roads have cats’ eyes. The white line is a sure guide, if there is one. But should your journey take you to places more remote, these artificial aids disappear. Knowing which way you are heading becomes more difficult. Not knowing where you are becomes more frightening.
It doesn’t take a massive leap of the imagination to see the future as a fog-bound journey that we must all somehow navigate. For part of the road, we will have artificial aids; the routines with which we organise our lives: work, holiday, doing the weekly shop, filling the car, the television schedule. But events we cannot foresee can upset the routine, and take us down unfamiliar ways we had not expected. I don’t need to spell out all the potential for calamity; you know too well what I mean.
I wish I could stand here and say something like, ‘we need to make better use of God’s sat nav’. Or ‘we need to look through the scriptural telescope that God provides’. Or ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus will give us a sure guiding star when the road is uncertain.’ There are all sorts of tie-ups we could make here: the Bible as an A-Z for finding your round life; prayer as a spiritual smart phone, Christian teaching as a moral star chart.
Wouldn’t such simple solutions as these be great? The answers, the guidance, the control that we’d like to enjoy, just by doing the right spiritual exercises? We’ve all lived through enough future to know that it isn’t so, especially when the fog is down and we are feeling lost and uncertain. With the spiritual winter weather that we face these days, it becomes harder and harder to navigate our lonely way.
But have you noticed how, in the Christmas story, everyone travels in a group? Mary and Joseph make their way together to Bethlehem. Shepherds, in the plural, leave their sheep upon the fell-side to seek the baby Jesus. Magi, rather than a single magus on his own, travel to find the infant king. Without puffing myself up, I can say that I have learned a little about God over the last 50 years. So have you. So has everyone else in this place of worship. Multiply that up! Add that all together! All of our experience of God and of living, all of our working out of his will together, all of our learning what it is to worship and to pray. Not an answer, then. But a resource for discovering our way, precious as gold, frankincense and myrrh: each other. Each other.
Like magi, we still gaze up at the stars. We still look for the signs of God’s activity, when we remember to lift our eyes from the ground. Our glimpses of God may seem disappointingly infrequent, and often obscured by the clouds of human activity and the light-pollution of human sinfulness. But I by myself am not the only one looking up. Even if not for me, then for someone, somewhere, the skies are clearing. Perhaps for you. Perhaps for someone else in our church group of fellow-travellers. Can we share our insights, as our eyes adjust, and the starlight becomes visible once again? Starlight that reveals God to us in the unlikeliest of places, amongst the unlikeliest of people. Such as in a stable, for instance, surrounded by shepherds, and star-led magi.
© Jon Russell 2020