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Wonder of the Night Sky
|(photo: Karin Kocumova)|
(written in 1990)
Some 50 years ago we could identify two galaxies in space. Now, scientists tell us, we can identify two billion.
A galaxy is a band of luminous stars. American astronomers have recently identified what they say is the largest galaxy ever discovered. It is more than 60 times the size of our own, the Milky Way, and contains 100 million million stars.
Amazing facts. Remarkable too that scientists can discover these things.
There is something particularly magical and mysterious about a clear star-lit sky on a winter's night.
Overhead in the Northern sky at a certain time of year are three impressive constellations, one leading into the other. Perseus, shaped like a sickle, leads to Andromeda, which then leads to the Square of Pegasus. One of the bright stars of Andromeda has a faint fuzz above it which you can just see if your eyesight is good. It may be the furthest thing you can see with the naked eye. It is the famous galaxy in Andromeda, two million light-years away.
So what we see is not the galaxy as it is now, but as it was two million years ago. We can get some idea of the sheer scale of this distance if we realise that the sun is 93 million miles away and its light takes eight minutes to reach us. Another lovely constellation is Orion, containing seven bright stars which include the conspicuous three-in-a-row, usually called Orion's Belt. Another is Betelgeux, a red giant with a diameter of 260 million miles. If you went round it in a car at 60 mph (96 kph) it would take you more than 1000 years to go round!
While Betelgeux is on the shoulder of Orion there is another dazzling star at the foot, Rigel. It is 50,000 times brighter than the sun, and it loses 800,000 million tons a second.
Most of these star-names were given by the Arabs centuries ago.
You may want to put on a coat and go out into the night and just marvel. Readers in the tropics need no coat! If you are feeling very full of yourself, or burdened with life, the stars can give a sense of proportion. They have the same effect on me as a tree or a forest. They seem to say, 'Slow down.'
It all makes me think of the first verse of the first chapter of Genesis and how 'God created the heaven and the earth'. The present Pope once said that anyone who wants to understand the world must read the first three chapters of Genesis.
Psalm 19 begins: 'The heavens declare the glory of God.'
When I go to India or Australia I love being able to say 'Hello' again to the Southern Cross. It is like meeting old friends. And it is so beautiful.
The Great Bear in our Northern sky is also beautiful. Two of its seven stars are going in opposite directions to the other five. But two of them can still point to the North Star, and we can steer our ship by it, as sailors have done for centuries.
The night sky is a fascinating book, to read and re-read.
In the book of Revelation comes this passage: 'To him that overcometh will I give power over the nations and I will give him the morning star.' The morning star, which is the planet Venus, is a glorious sight in the dawn sky, perfect and glowing, and I like to think that God is offering me something of his perfection.
At Christmas, we read about the wise men who followed the star 'till it came and stood over where the young child was ... and when they saw it they rejoiced with exceeding great joy'.
I know it may seem a childish thought to think of heaven being somewhere in the sky. But we do see grandeur there, which reminds me of God. And the atmosphere is so clear that we can see fabulously far, reminding me of eternity!
The largeness of the heavens and the smallness of a baby - two sides of the character of God.
Through that child, God, who made the heavens, can become my closest personal friend. This is the wonder of Christmas. The night sky may reveal it to us afresh.
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