Dancing with the stars

I only remember a few of the Christmas presents I received as a boy.  I would wait with great anticipation for Christmas morning.  When the day finally arrived, my sister and I would happily tear open packages.  On occasion, we would unwrap something that would make our eyes sparkle with happiness and wonder.  More often, it seemed, we would find underwear, socks, or something else easily taken for granted by middle-class children growing up in a consumer culture.  Those gifts were soon forgotten.

One present stands out in my memory, though: a telescope.  Not a toy–but an actual low-power telescope on its own tripod, with an assortment of attachments.  My parents knew my fascination with the stars.  There were times, on a clear night, when I would go out onto the deck and simply stare up into the sky.  Later, I would lie awake pondering infinity and the universe.  I didn’t grow up as a Christian, but these dreamy musings left me vaguely conscious that there had to be something behind what little I had heard about God.

That telescope was probably the most exciting gift I ever received.  Truth be told, however, peering through it was always a distinctly underwhelming experience.  My imagination had been stoked by picture books proclaiming the wonders of the solar system, and the beautiful nebulae that lay beyond.  I memorized constellations and searched for them in the sky, imagining the others before me who had named the constellations in the first place.  Somehow, I wanted that telescope to reveal all the mysterious marvels of the universe to me.  All it could do, however, was turn tiny dots of light into slightly larger dots of light.  It was better suited to spying on the neighbors than exploring the galaxy.

I needed a bigger telescope.  When I hit college, I thought I would be an astronomy major, and registered for an introductory course right away, hoping to kindle that boyhood fascination.  But the dry-as-dust lectures and textbooks soon cured me of any further desire to chase that particular future.  They had taken all the fun out of it.

There’s still no substitute for letting one’s sense of wonder drift off into a clear night sky.  I remember the first time my wife saw the desert at night.  We went camping with friends in Anza Borrego State Park.  The weather was perfect.  All of us tried to prepare her for what she would see when she looked up into the heavens.  But it didn’t make sense to her.  “I’ve seen stars before.  How much different could it be?” she asked, with a puzzled look.

Then we were there.  Away from the lights of the city, the sky was a deeper and hazeless black.  As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the edge of the Milky Way grew brighter, painting a glowing band from horizon to horizon.  It was glorious.  The three of us turned to my wife with expectant expressions, waiting for her reaction.  And as if on cue, she articulated in simple and direct terms what all of us felt: “Wow.”

There is so much cause for wonder in God’s handiwork, from a sky sprinkled with stars above to the symmetrical beauty of the tiniest flowers springing from the ground below.  People are his handiwork too, though we’re apt to overlook it.  Yes, there are mornings when I look in the mirror and say, “Wow!”  But that’s a different kind of wonder, more like a befuddled amazement that so many things about my face and hair could have been misplaced while I was asleep.

And, of course, there is the wonder of Christmas itself, the Incarnation of God’s Word as a baby.  To quote the genie from Disney’s Aladdin: “Phenomenal cosmic powers!  Itty-bitty living space.”

We sentimentalize Christmas by making cute little images of the baby on our Christmas cards.  Here’s the chubby little infant with rosy cheeks, lying on clean straw in a clean and well-lit stable.  He’s surrounded by similarly cute little animals, all smiling, all giving their rapt adoration.   There may even be an angel hovering about: but not the biblical kind that scared the tunics off the startled shepherds, but the Precious Moments kind, the ones that look like infants themselves.

To be fair, all of this is probably because that’s what we usually think of babies: they’re supposed to be adorable.  But we don’t worship the infant Christ-child for being cute; we worship him for being God.  I wouldn’t begin to know how to capture that on a Christmas card.

When I look up at the stars, I am still amazed by things I can only dimly imagine.  What seem to be closely spaced points of light, to my naked vision, are enormous flaming furnaces at incomprehensible distances from each other, and from me.  And there are more of them that anyone can count.  Yet God hangs each star in the sky and knows every one of them by name.

That God, this baby.  All for love.

Wow.