Sunday, July 23, 2023

All These Shining Orbs

Two years ago, truckers from our very own county lugged pieces of gargantuan equipment out to California, where they set out by barge for South America. The pieces belonged to the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched on Christmas Day 2021. Astronomers waited with bated breath as it worked its way to its destination, orbiting the sun in parallel with Earth. And a little over a year ago, the first full-color images generated from its data were published. Aimed deep into a tiny spot of sky, it saw thousands of galaxies. It stunned the world with vivid glimpses of neighbor planets and far-off nebulae. It was an immensity of beauty we'd never seen before.

Humans have, for all reasons, been gazing up longer than we remember. Archaeologists have found stargazing structures from the Stone Age all over the place. Abraham's childhood neighbors had a basic level of scientific astronomy – they studied stars moving in paths above, watched sun and moon – but they used it for horoscopes and idolatry. Every known culture of his day saw stars as spiritual controllers of life on earth below, while the sun and moon were bowed to as important gods. “They worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). No wonder Moses feared “lest you raise your eyes to heaven and, when you see the sun and the moon and the stars..., you be drawn away and bow down and serve them” (Deuteronomy 4:19).

When Genesis switches from narrating God fixing the world's formlessness to him filling the world's void, we hear first of God installing these very things in the expanse. But to help Israel from getting carried away, the scripture undersells what God has made, not even naming 'sun' and 'moon' lest those be taken as divine names, making the stars an afterthought, “emphasizing that sun, moon, and stars are not divinities.”1 They're not gods; they're things, lamps to light this world God made, and created by him to serve his purposes (Genesis 1:14-15).

What are they for? Three basic things. First, they're there to maintain and regulate the flow of time, and help human life to find organization and direction (Genesis 1:14, 18b) – a balance of “summer and winter, seedtime and harvest,” and an aid for navigation and so much more. Second, these things above us are vessels to “give light upon the earth” (Genesis 1:15, 17). Having already invented light, now God makes lamps for sharing it reliably with us. And third, these things are there “to rule over the day and over the night” (Genesis 1:16, 18a; cf. Psalm 136:7-9). From our earthly point of view, sun and moon dominate their respective realms, shepherding these creations called 'day' and 'night' to stay in their structured bounds.2 But they do it as ministers of the authority of God, obliged to serve the earth below, to rule the skies for our sake.3

Not until the gospel's spread had chased away our chronic tendency to worship these rulers of the day and night sky did God let us begin taking a closer look at these wonders – from ancient star catalogues and medieval observatories, to Galileo's gaze through his improved telescope, all the way up through the space probes and landers and crewed missions and space telescopes of our modern era. And as God permits us to step forth and explore his creation beyond our lovely little marble, we could never have imagined what we've already found.

The Bible tells us that “light it sweet, and it is pleasant to the eyes to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7), “the eye of the world, the joy of the day, the beauty of the heavens, the charm of nature, and the most conspicuous object in creation,” as one Christian teacher called it.4 The sun, on average about 93 million miles away, is big, over a hundred times wider than earth and containing more than 99% of all the mass in the solar system. It's just the right size and distance for Earth to be habitable. Pulled together by gravity pressurizing unimaginable clouds of hydrogen gas until the heat and density force the hydrogen to start fusing into helium, this nuclear fusion reactor throws off light at scales we can't fathom. In every trillionth of a second, the energy it hurls out all around could power society for five thousand years.5 Of course, it takes a hundred thousand years for any photon to get from the sun's core to its surface – but from there, it's just an eight-second trip to get here. I think one old saint said it best: “The greater the sun is shown to be, so much the more marvelous is the revelation of the Creator!”6

And then “consider how God has cheered the darkness of the night by the bright rays of the moon.”7 A quarter as wide as the earth, it's got just over 1% of Earth's mass, and a sixth of our surface gravity. Scientists' best guess on where God got the stuff to build the moon from is that materials got blown off the early earth in a massive collision with another planet. Without any atmosphere to speak of, the moon's rocky, dusty surface is pockmarked with craters a-plenty. Under a quarter-million miles away, on average, it can dominate the night sky to our eyes. It's close enough that it's the only natural off-planet surface where human feet have yet trod – and we hope to send more in the next few years. And not only does the moon's influence cause the tides that keep Earth's seas from stagnating, but it also keeps Earth's axis steady enough to stabilize our climate.

But our planet isn't alone. Our closest twin is Venus, over 35 million miles off. This morning and evening star is the brightest thing in our sky after sun and moon. It's a rocky world about our size and shape, but crushed under clouds of sulfuric acid, leading to atmospheric pressure nearly a hundred times what we've got here and average heat over 850 degrees. Not a popular vacation spot. The other way, we find our planetary brother Mars, right now over 217 million miles away. A smaller planet than ours, with gravity barely more than a third what we feel, its thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere rests over its rusty soil. Yet it's got mountains that pat Everest on the head, canyons that eat ours for lunch. Robots we've sent have sent us pictures of, literally, another world.

Venture further, past the asteroid belt, and you'll find gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. You could cram over seven hundred Earths into Saturn, and thirteen hundred inside Jupiter. But while their cores are high pressure, most of the planet's total volume is a light and low-density gas. God gave Jupiter a storm big enough to swallow Earth, and Jupiter's moon Io hundreds of active volcanoes; he gave Saturn those rings of ice and dust, 170,000 miles wide, and gave Saturn's moon Titan an ice sheet covering oceans of water and ammonia. Each hoards its collection of moons – we've counted 95 for Jupiter, 146 for Saturn.

And then there are a few more planets, and poor Pluto, the dwarf planet in a binary system with one of its five known moons, though Pluto itself isn't even as big as our moon. Pluto falls in the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy objects and dwarf planets at the edge of our solar system – Pluto's not alone. Then there are comets, ice-coated objects knocked onto crazy oval orbits that send them through our backyard now and then. When they get close enough, the solar wind outgasses streams of vapor, hence the tails millions of miles long streaming behind.

But beyond our solar system, which we once thought was basically the whole universe, already by late Roman days, some began to guess that “many of the stars... are equal to the sun, or even greater, but they seem small because they have been set further away.”8 Little did they know! Our sun is a main sequence star, fusing hydrogen into helium; but a big enough star late in its life cycle it might start fusing helium into carbon, and ultimately – along a process called the alpha ladder – combining more and more heavy elements into things like oxygen and more. The carbon in our bodies, the oxygen we breathe – God built those in the heart of a star!

And most stars – not all, but most – are part of a larger system called a galaxy, with gravity working over great distances to bind stars, loose gas, dust, and dark matter into these somewhat cohesive swirls of light. Our solar system is a speck in the Orion Arm of the galaxy we call the Milky Way, and it wasn't until a century ago that we realized there even were other galaxies. Being tens of thousands of light-years across, our Milky Way contains more than the hymn's “million worlds in rhythmic sway” – at least ten billion, maybe up to four hundred billion stars. And some have ten thousand times as many – so, since we've counted and named tens of thousands of galaxies, and suspect there to be a couple hundred billion out there, that's at least a few sextillion stars. Yet our God “determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:4)!

We sit a couple dozen thousand light-years from our galactic center, which – as in many galaxies – is centered on a supermassive black hole, as heavy as four million suns, with maybe some smaller black holes nearby. One of the most mysterious objects in the universe, a black hole is the place where, thanks to big enough stars collapsing, gravity's gotten so intense, warping the fabric of space and time itself, to the point that, anywhere inside the event horizon, not even light is strong enough to escape. We can only guess what's inside a black hole. Some secrets, God is still reserving for himself, though he may share them in time.

To look out there and take this all in, it summons us to a profound humility before the universe. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). If the psalmist asked that based on what his naked eyes could see, how much more now should we be amazed that we little things on this puny planet catch God's attention? But we do – the God who made these things loves us, knowing your name no less than each of the sextillion stars! We're powerless to master it all, as powerless as was Job when God asked: “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?” (Job 38:31-33). We know a bit more about those ordinances of physics now, but “the grandeur of the heavens transcends the measure of the human intellect.”9

Job confessed that the Lord “does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number” (Job 9:10). Every year we prove it more and more – and it's extravagant, excessive! For our sake, for our life, God didn't have to make so many stars we wouldn't even be able to notice until now, or the ones we've still yet to see. He didn't have to make distant galaxies. Nor did he have to make so many other planets, or give them such fascinating features. But he made all his works dazzling and plentiful and unaccountably great!

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of his hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. … Their voice goes out through all the earth, their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1-3). “Burning sun with golden beam..., silver moon with softer gleam,” and stars, everything from thinnest cosmic gas to the most frightful black hole, in the solemn silence of space these wordless preachers proclaim – unavoidably to all on earth – a testimony trumpeting terrific truth, a gospel greater than galaxy upon galaxy. They themselves are dazzling, but as Bildad mentions, “even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in God's eyes” (Job 25:5). And so, in the end, “the contemplation of the sun is incapable of satisfying us,” and neither are all the countless galaxies and their contents.10 “Do you see the sky and marvel at its beauty, at the variety of the stars, at its utter brilliance?” asked one old bishop. “Don't stop there, but lead your mind on to their Creator.”11 “For from the greatness and beauty of created things, their Original Author is seen by analogy” (Wisdom 13:5). And this is the gospel, because the Original Author “who arranged the stars in the heavens, who lit up the great lights,” is none other than our Savior Jesus Christ.12

And not only do they show us his glory, unveil his extravagance, and humble us in awe and wonder, but they attest to his wisdom and faithfulness in creation. God's promise “shall endure... as long as the sun before me; like the moon, it shall be established forever” (Psalm 89:36-37). “Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above join with all nature in manifold witness to God's great faithfulness, mercy, and love” – don't we sing that? So “sing the wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day; the moon shines full at God's command, and all the stars obey.” And the more our telescopes take in, the more astronomers find and share with the world, the more “new wonders crowd the eye, the ear, and faith grows firmer every year: 'My God is there controlling!'”

Ours is a God of wonders, who made unimaginable vistas for us to see, if only we'd look up in newer and newer ways from this terrestrial ball to all these shining orbs above. But if we should turn our telescopes to the heaven of space, no less should we aim the telescopes of our hearts at the spiritual firmament God put in place.

“The LORD God,” says the psalmist, “is a sun” (Psalm 84:11). The sun was long taken as a fit (though partial) image for God “by its full light that does not change with the days.”13 And the prophets predicted that “the Sun of Righteousness shall rise” (Malachi 4:2). In this vision, they were seeing Jesus Christ, “whom the other sun [in the sky] foreshadowed.”14 It was as an image of him that “in the heavens... God has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man runs its race with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:4-6). So Jesus is the strong-man Bridegroom tabernacled in God's heaven, with nothing hidden from the warmth of his love. He's the source of light and life, without whom we'd all freeze and die, for he “in rising enlightened the whole world.”15 As Earth naturally orbits the sun, so our world is held in place by the gravity of God's glory in Christ – much as we'd like to be a rogue planet, to our detriment. And as the physical sun emits vastly more radiation than Earth can receive, so Christ's super-abundant grace lavishly outstrips a sinful world's needs. There is grace enough beaming off of Christ in any trillionth of a second to save all who've ever lived!

So if Christ is the sun of the spiritual firmament, what's the moon? The Church! The moon is the next brightest thing in our sky, not because of anything done in the moon, but simply because it reflects light it gets from the sun. Just so, “not from her own light does the Church gleam, but from the light of Christ.”16 The moon shares this reflected sunlight with the darkened earth when the earth can't see the sun directly; “so also the Church, when the light of Christ has been received, illuminates all who live in the night of ignorance.”17 The moon stabilizes Earth's climate and moves her tides to keep her seas from stagnating, and so is the Church a pillar of stability as she tugs the tides of culture to stall stagnation, whether the world sees it or not. Like the moon, the Church waxes and wanes over its history of “persecution and peace..., weakened by the desertion of some..., replenished by the witness of her martyrs.”18 The Church is, sadly, sometimes eclipsed when the world gets between her and the sight of Christ – and such a spiritual lunar eclipse can only darken the Church, making her of least use to the world. Then there are times she herself gets in the way of Christ: such a spiritual solar eclipse darkens the world. Yet, thanks be to God, even a rare total solar eclipse can't block out the solar corona or the sun's heat from reaching Earth; and neither – even at the Church's worst – has she ever so fully managed to eclipse Christ as to utterly choke off his light and love from reaching those who wish to see him, know him.

So what other stars dot the spiritual firmament more distantly? The prophet was told that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness shall shine like the stars forever” (Daniel 12:3). So already from the earliest years, Christians understood that “the disposition of the stars corresponds to the arrangement and rank of the righteous and godly men who keep the law and the commandments of God.”19 Those believers who've gone before us, especially those who excelled – Moses, the prophets, Peter and Paul, other great heroes of faith – they're stars we look to, stars we can navigate by. Paul pointed out that “star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41), “and so each of the saints, according to his [or her] own greatness, sheds his light upon us.”20 We're meant to take cues from them all.

But you too, if you're in Christ, have even now begun to “shine like lights in the world,” like stars in the sky (Philippians 2:15). And when finally united fully to the Christ who balances all the galactic superclusters on the barest point of his love, then “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). So look up! Look and consider all the worlds of wonder his hands have made. Look up and see the mystery of Christ and the Church, look up to the saints who've gone before. Look up and learn to shine, shine, shine. Let no weakening gravity dissipate your fervor for holiness; let no black hole of hell drag you out of place and swallow you you-know-not-where; let no intervening cloud of dust shield the world from your steady circuit. Conformed to Christ our Sun, following the lead of the churchly moon, go forth to blaze wisdom and righteousness and holy love wherever God places you along your pathway into the sky. Thanks be to the Maker of the Stars!  Amen.

1  Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 9.

2  Jeffrey L. Cooley, Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East: The Reflexes of Celestial Science in Ancient Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Israelite Narrative (Eisenbrauns, 2013), 316.

3  Joseph E. Coleson, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 60.

4  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 4.1 §2, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:127.

5  Leon Golub and Jay M. Pasachoff, Nearest Star: The Surprising Science of Our Sun (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 12.

6  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 6.11, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:83.

7  Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 9.8, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 61:189.

8  Augustine of Hippo, Literal Meaning of Genesis 2.16 §33, in The Works of St. Augustine I/13:211.

9  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 6.1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:84.

10  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 6.1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:85.

11  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 6.21, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:88.

12  Melito of Sardis, On the Passover 82, in Popular Patristics Series 55:76.

13  Jacob of Serugh, Homily 71.1362, in Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 52:28.

14  Anastasius of Sinai, Hexaemeron 4.10.5, in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278:143.

15  Didymus the Blind, Commentary on Genesis 1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 132:48.

16  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 4.8 §32, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:156.

17  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Genesis 1.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 71:54.

18  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 4.2 §7, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:131.

19  Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2.15, in Robert M. Grant, tr., Theophilus of Antioch: Ad Autolycum (Oxford University Press, 1970), 53.

20  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Genesis 1.7, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 71:55.

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