The Star

Ricercar                    Vincenzo Galilei (1520–1591) [ORGAN]

Come, Thou Long Expected Jeuss


There are many elements to the Advent/Christmas Story, and one on which I would like to focus this Advent season is ’The Star’.

’The Star in the East” is the tiniest of elements in the Christmas story, and additionally any given star is a tiny element in the night sky. Sure, some have argued that ’The Star’ which the Magi (Mages?) saw must have been particularly large to notice. But apparently only the Magi noticed it: not Herod, and not people in general. In other words, I would suggest that the Magi saw it when no one else did — apparently because they were Paying Attention.

As a young adult in the 70s I read the then enormously popular Carlos Casteneda books about Carlos’ encounters and tutelage by Don Juan, a Yaqui indian sorcerer. (In this context, ’sorcerer’ wasn’t at all about doing evil of any sort, it was about having deep operative knowledge about the world — perhaps ’mage’ is a better word.) A major theme of these books was peyote — something which has never interested yours truly in the slightest. But the third book, “Journey to Ixtlan” was something very different. Its premise was that becoming a ’mage’ is about replacing your native worldview with a radically more comprehensive one. (Eerily like Biblical ’METANOIA’ – weakly translated ’repentance’, but English doesn’t have a better word. Ha ha that might be a problem for us, when we may not even have an English word for what is asked of us! But I digress…). ’Don Juan’ says this METANOIA (so to speak) is a profound shock to the psyche, but there are things you can do to prepare your psyche to withstand the shock. Let’s see how many of these align with Christian praxes: “Lose your self importance.” “Death is your advisor” (that is, remembering that death is all too imminent gives us powerful perspective on what is truly important and what isn’t.) “Assuming responsibility” (stop blaming.) To list just a few.

One of Don Juan’s concepts is ’the cubic centimeter of chance’. That is, there are seemingly insignificant moments, seemingly trivial choices, tiny stars in the sky that if followed change your life forever. Of all the stars in the sky, the Magi saw ONE out of place that no one else noticed, and they followed it at great personal cost and risk, just to pay their respects to the Christ. They saw their ’cubic centimeter of chance’ for Good, for God, and they took it. How must that have changed them. And maybe changed the World.

Just for fun this Advent season I’ve found connections between important astronomers (modern ’magi’ of the night sky) and music. This morning is Vincenzo Galilei (1520–1591), an eminent composer of his day in Italy, and father to the famous Galileo (1564[3]–1642). Of course Vincenzo gave his beloved son a solid grounding in music — Galileo played the lute well, ferinstance. And in an age before chronometers or any means of measuring time with any precision (sundials don’t cut it), Galileo’s music training enabled him to subdivide time accurately enough to found modern physics.

To be sure his astronomical observations (which got him into so much trouble) were revolutionary. But when the Vatican forbade him from any more astronomical inquiries and put him under house arrest, he turned his attention to ’terrestrial’ interests. And so we find Galileo able to ’slow down gravity’ by rolling balls down a wooden trough with a very gentle slope. With his musical training he was able to confidently mark the progress of the ball each ’quarter note’ down the trough. Which enabled him to empirically determine the relatively simple but previously unknown mathematical relationship between distance, velocity and acceleration due to gravity — arguably the first empirical/mathematical law of modern physics. All by paying close attention to the trivial phenomenon of balls rolling down a trough.

If that’s not Following A Star that’s unnoticed in plain sight, I don’t know what is.