Revd Nick Bundock explores the wonder of the universe and whether it reveals the wonder of a creator.
The Bank of England would like to place a scientist on the new £50 note and are asking the British public to vote on one of the 800 scientists on the shortlist. My vote would go to William Herschel.
In October 1779 Herschel began a systematic search of every star in the heavens. He became the first person in history to discover binary stars, that is two stars which revolve around each other. He charted the rings of Saturn, peered into the Great Orion Nebula and for the sake of generations of giggling schoolboys he threw in the discovery of Uranus as an aside. In the year 1800 Herschel observed sun spots and discovered that there was an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum, that we now call infra-red radiation.
William Herschel was from a devout Lutheran Christian family and although his work was wholy scientific, he saw in it a deeper meaning. “All human discoveries,” said Herschel, “seem to be made for the purpose of confirming more strongly those truths from on high and contained in the sacred writings.”
By peering further and deeper into space than ever before Herschel also discovered his God. The wonder of the universe magnified the wonder of his creator.
Herschel wasn’t the only person in history to be inspired by the heavens. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon on the 20th July 1969 Buzz Aldrin made contact with earth. “Apollo 11, this is Houston. We’re getting a good picture of Buzz, but no voice.” After a few minutes of video, but no voice, Buzz Aldrin came through on the radio.
“Good evening. I’d like to discuss with you a few of the more symbolic aspects of the flight. We’ve come to the conclusion that this has been far more than three men on a voyage to the moon, more still than the efforts of a government, a space industry, even more than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown. Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from the Psalms comes to mind. “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”
These words of Psalm 8 were themselves written a thousand years before the birth of Christ by King David who was himself inspired by the great cloudy belt of the Milky Way while considering the heavens, the work of God’s fingers.
There is something about the heavens that inspires wonderment.
The great Christian author and scholar C.S. Lewis fully comprehended the heavens as a sign that pointed Godward and warned against destructive reductionism. In his book the Voyage of the Dawn Treader the rather bookish and sceptical boy Eustace encounters Ramandu who is the spirit of an ancient star. Eustace, who is a bit of a know-it-all says to the star-spirit. “In our world, a star is just a huge ball of flaming gas.” To which Ramandu replies “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Herschel, Aldrin and Lewis found in the heavens a sign of God.
How appropriate then that the heavens should conspire among themselves to send at the moment of the Saviour’s birth a great light in the sky as a portent and a sign of what was to take place on earth. A star so bright and so brilliant that it caused three Magi to cross the deserts of the near east to find the promised king. A star so brilliant and magnificent that it would find its way into the Gospel account of Saint Matthew. A star so magnificent that scientists have postulated a supernova, a comet or planetary conjunction.
The Eastern Orthodox sing at Christmas:
Your birth, O Christ our God,
dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Your birth those who adored stars
were taught by a star
to worship You, the Sun of Justice,
and to know You, Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You.
In the final assessment what I observe is that all things point towards this saviour, this God, this heavenly being, this lode star, this baby in a Bethlehem stable.
We don’t just appreciate the magnificence and beauty of the natural world because our neurons are hard wired to fire off inside our brains when we see a sunset or a snow-capped mountain. We love beauty for its own sake and because it points us to something bigger than us.
In the same way, we don’t fall in love or have children because we’re just biologically programmed to procreate. We fall in love or have children so we can learn what it’s like to love someone so much we’d rather die than see harm come to them because God is love.
And Christmas itself isn’t just an anthropological festival at the winter solstice, it’s a sign that even when the nights are darkest and the sun appears to have permanently slipped beneath the horizon its then and only then that hope breaks forth and the morning star rises in the east.
As we Follow the Star this Christmas what we see happening as the baby is laid in the manager and the star of Bethlehem shines overhead cannot be reduced simply to biology or physics, although it’s both of those, it’s so much more. It’s Emmanuel, God with Us and for those who can read the signs it’s Joy on earth and goodwill to all mankind. Amen.
Main image by Greg Rakozy, Unsplash