Four Night Sky Christmas Meditations
Astronomer Elizabeth Fernandez invites us to look up this Christmas and be moved from wonder to worship. December has a meteor shower and more in store for us.
Image used under license from Shutterstock.com
Stepping outside in the middle of the night in December might be the last thing on your mind this Christmas season. For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be cold, snowing, and even windy. But humor me for a while—if you are willing to step outside for a moment and gaze upwards, you may just find your attention drawn heavenwards and your heart filled with wonder. Wonder about the natural world can move us to worship the Creator of it all.
As an astronomer and Christian, I have had my share of wonder to worship moments. I believe anyone can. You don’t have to be a scientist. I invite you to consider inviting wonder into your life. What better time to start than this Christmas season? Check out these four celestial events to observe as we prepare ourselves for Christ this Christmas.
1. Mercury at its Greatest Elongation
It’s hard to observe Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, even when conditions are right. Because it is so close to the sun, Mercury is normally drowned in the sun’s bright light. But on the evening of December 4th, Mercury will appear the farthest from the sun in our sky. This is called its Greatest Elongation. If you are up for the challenge, you can look for Mercury very close to the horizon just after sunset. To do this, it may be handy to consult a sky map for your location.
The sun is bright—really bright. We can attest to this every single day when it washes out all of the stars in the sky. Observing challenging things, like Mercury, can give us an interesting point to meditate on. In our culture, we are often taught “seeing is believing.” In our secular culture, it seems that we have to see, hear, or feel something to make it real. But the truth is we cannot see everything that is real. We can’t see Mercury most of the time, as it is obscured by the brightness of the sun. But that doesn’t make it any less real.
2. The Geminid Meteor Shower
The Geminid Meteor shower is from December 7th to 17th, but you’ll see the peak the night of December 13/14th. Most meteor showers occur when the Earth’s orbit passes through the orbit of a comet, or in this case, an asteroid. When this happens, grit and rubble left over in the asteroid’s trail can burn up in the atmosphere of the Earth. The Geminids are truly spectacular—producing meteors that can be green, white, yellow, red, and blue. This year, the new moon is on the 12th of December, which means we’ll have an exceptionally dark sky for our stargazing. Some years, the Geminids can produce 120 meteors an hour!
Meteor showers are fantastic events to witness. The uncertainty of when and where the next meteor will be, paired with the chance of seeing truly bright, colorful, and beautiful meteors adds to the anticipation and wonder. And what are we celebrating this Christmas season? Anticipation and wonder! You can find out more about how to observe the Geminids.
Meteor showers are fantastic events to witness. The uncertainty of when and where the next meteor will be, paired with the chance of seeing truly bright, colorful, and beautiful meteors adds to the anticipation and wonder.
3. Celestial Alignments
Jupiter will be high in the sky, and hence easy to observe, for all of December. Jupiter is a fantastic observing goal—it is bright and wonderfully beautiful. You can even grab a telescope (or even a really good pair of binoculars) to see a view of Jupiter’s four brightest moons. Saturn will also be up this month. A beautiful crescent moon will swing by Saturn on December 17th, and the moon will be close to Jupiter on the 22nd. Celestial alignments like these are pretty to see. But they may have also had a significance in a story of Christ’s birth that we are all familiar with—the Star of Bethlehem.
There have been many attempts to understand exactly what the Star of Bethlehem was—from a comet to a supernova to a literary device made up by the evangelist Matthew. A controversial theory—but one that just might be valid—was introduced by astronomer Michael Molnar. Molnar pointed out that on the morning of April 17th, 6 B.C., there would have been a special conjunction of planets. Saturn, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter would have all been clustered in the sky near the moon. Such a grouping of planets only happens once every 200 years.
But it gets more interesting. These planets were clustered in Aries, often referred to as the constellation of the Jews. An amassing of planets in a single constellation is something that happens once every 2,500 years. Then, the moon even occulted (or passed in front of) Jupiter, what ancient cultures regarded as the regal planet.
Matthew, in his gospel, talks of the Star of Bethlehem “standing still.” Could Jupiter stand still? Interestingly, it can, through a phenomenon called retrograde motion. Since the Earth is closer to the sun than Jupiter (and Mars, Saturn, and all of the outer planets) it moves faster in its orbit. The Earth can “catch up” to Jupiter as it circles the sun. For us on Earth, this causes a phenomenon where it would appear that Jupiter would pause moving east to west among the stars, and then reverse motion. In the year 5 B.C., Jupiter would have stopped in the sky for about a week before entering retrograde, moving eastward across the sky.
[The Star of Bethlehem] gives us a chance to ponder how our spiritual stories can unite with historical and astronomical events, allowing us to learn not only about the story of Jesus’ birth, but the culture that existed at the time.
These rare astrological events might have made quite an impression on the ancient Magi. While not everyone agrees with this explanation of the Star of Bethlehem, it gives us a chance to ponder how our spiritual stories can unite with historical and astronomical events, allowing us to learn not only about the story of Jesus’ birth, but the culture that existed at the time.
4. The December Solstice
The solstice is on December 22nd. For those in the northern hemisphere, this is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the summer solstice.
The Earth’s seasons result from a wobble that the Earth experiences as it goes around the sun. During the December solstice, the North Pole is angled away from the sun. This causes short days in the northern hemisphere, and if you are far enough north, the sun would never even rise. In the southern hemisphere, the South Pole is pointed towards the sun, and it is summer. The sun would never set for locations that are far enough south. The solstices have been a big deal for people for millennia. Our ancestors were very attuned to the motions of the planets, sun, and moon.
Growing up in New Mexico, I often visited Chaco Canyon, the home of the Ancestral Pueblo Native Americans. The ruins, over a thousand years old, still testify to the importance of celestial events in their culture. Their cities and roads themselves were aligned with celestial objects and events in mind.
It is in Chaco Canyon that you will find one of the most famous petroglyphs, or rock carvings. It is a spiral set behind slabs of rocks. Referred to as the “Sun Dagger”, the spiral and slabs were perfectly aligned so that two spears of light bracket the spiral on the winter solstice. On the summer solstice, a single dagger of light would go through the center of the spiral.
The solstice has been a lesson for people for millennia and can continue to be one for us today. Even when things are the coldest, when it doesn’t seem like things can get any darker, the sun turns around. We are never abandoned in our darkest hour. The Son returns.
Before the winter solstice, the Ancestral Pueblo people would watch the sun rise further and further south each day. The world would get colder, and the nights would become longer. But the sun did not abandon the land. On the solstice, the sun reversed direction and started heading north again. The days once again became longer, and light and warmth returned.
This story made an impact on me. The solstice has been a lesson for people for millennia and can continue to be one for us today. Even when things are the coldest, when it doesn’t seem like things can get any darker, the sun turns around. We are never abandoned in our darkest hour. The Son returns.
In the busyness of the season, I invite you to slow down and look upward and around you. Christ truly can be found everywhere. If we look closely, we’ll find that he is near. It is in the nights, when all seems dark and cold, when we are able to see the stars. I hope this has given you some things to ponder this Christmas season and some ways to bring science and Christ into your holiday as well!
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About the author
Deb Haarsma | James Webb Space Telescope
Jennifer Wiseman | Light in Space