This was my contribution for the January issue of the Fishkill UMC newsletter.
What do you see when you look at the stars? The rising of Sirius, “the dog star”, in the spring told the ancient Egyptians that the annual flooding of the Nile would occur soon.
Each society and culture have their own stories about the stars and the constellations. Do you see the people and animals that other people and cultures saw so many years ago? Do you see the stories those first astronomers saw? Do you see the Scorpion chasing the Hunter across the sky during the year?
The first “constellations” that you probably learned when you first looked to the skies were the “Big Dipper” and its companion, the “Little Dipper”. It should be noted that the “Big Dipper” is an asterism, a collection of stars within a constellation. In the case of the “Big Dipper”, it is part of the constellation Ursa Major. (And my thanks to Jane Rausch for reminding me of this distinction.) But some cultures see the “Big Dipper” as a separate constellation. It is also known in some cultures as the “drinking gourd” (or variations on that idea).
You learned that the two stars in the bowl of the “Big Dipper” pointed to Polaris, the star at the end of the handle of the “Little Dipper.” (see the accompanying diagram)
It is a tradition that those escaping slavery in the time before the Civil War were told to “follow the drinking gourd.” But the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, that told of the path to walk towards freedom was not written until after the war, so the validity of the story behind the song is questionable. Still, those who sought their freedom by traveling north looked to the stars of the “Big Dipper”, i.e, “the drinking gourd”, for a path to freedom.
When the Magi looked at the stars, they were looking for signs of the future. We know now that they were looking deep into the past, but that’s a story for another time.
The Magi and their colleagues opened our eyes to the wonders of the universe and their efforts are recorded in the names of many of the stars we see today (a look at the diagram of the “Little Dipper”, “Big Dipper” and Boötes shows that several of the stars have Arabic names.)
There is still a debate as to what the Magi saw that lead them to travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But whatever they saw, they interpreted it as something important and that was enough for them to make the journey. Others saw the same signes but they either ignored the signs or decided they were not important.
In one sense, the Magi did see the future, but it was when they met the Christ Child that they had a glimpse of the future. The announcement of Jesus’s birth was not given in the hallways of the rich, mighty, and powerful but among the people. Jesus’ birth changed the future and gave hope to the people when it did not seem that hope was possible.
“Systems are designed for the results they are getting. If you want different results, you will have to redesign the system.”Jones, Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm
Joseph Henry, one of America’s first great physicists, once remarked that “the seeds of great discoveries are constantly flowing around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”
Louis Pasteur once said that “Luck favors the prepared mind.”
X-rays, penicillin, Teflon, and pulsars are examples of events where the experimenter saw something that others considered superfluous or an experimental error.
Wilhelm Roentgen saw what others had seen and determined that a new ray, which he called X-rays, caused the “fogging” of the photographic plates in his laboratory. Others had seen this same fogging but ignored it or blamed it on faulty equipment. Roentgen went beyond the simple explanations and made the discovery.
In 1962, Neil Bartlett synthesized xenon tetrafluoride. The uniqueness of this synthesis was that, according to the chemistry textbooks of the time (and this includes the textbooks I used as a student from 1966 – 1968 and as an instructor from 1971 from 1980), it impossible to do. Xenon is known as a Noble Gas, so named because it seems to be chemically inert and thus would not form chemical compounds. Dr. Bartlett looked at the properties of xenon and determined that, in fact, such compounds could be made.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a graduate student in 1967 when she saw what she described as “bits of scruff” on the printout of the output of a radio telescope. Her professor insisted that the signal was simply interference and manmade. Dr. Bell Burnell insisted that the signal was real and futher study provided the evidence for pulsars.
How we see the signs around us tell a lot about who we are and who we desire to be?
Marilyn Ferguson wrote in the Aquarian Conspiracy, “We find our individual freedom by choosing not a destination but a direction.”
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice was told that “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” (a paraphrase of the dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland)
Slaves saw the “drinking gourd” as the direction to freedom. The Magi saw the signs of a new future when they found the Christ Child. Their lives were no doubt changed by this encounter and I am sure that they told others, their friends, and their neighbors, just as the shepherds did, what they saw when they returned home.
The religious and political establishment saw Jesus as a threat to their positions of power. When they crucified Jesus and had Him put into the Tomb, they thought that was the end of the story.
What do you see now that Christmas is over, and the shepherds and Magi have come and gone? Do you see a new world or is it the same world that was there before we celebrated Christmas? How do you see the lost, the persecuted, the sick and forgotten? Are they mistakes in society to be forgotten or is humanity to be found in how they are treated?
What do you see?
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