2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year. It brought a global pandemic, economic recession, political turmoil, riots, masks, earthquakes, murder hornets, etc. Worse than the pandemic of the body, though, are the pandemics of the soul–fear, anger, loneliness, and despair. Everyone is struggling to get through this disaster of a year.
We’ve had one surprise after another. Nevertheless, I was stunned to hear the news that the “Christmas star” would appear on December 21. The Christmas star is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky that reached its zenith on December 21, just before Christmas. It is a rare celestial event. The last time these two planets got together was eight hundred years ago. Johannes Kepler believed that this conjunction of planets was the Christmas star that appeared over Bethlehem and led the wise men to the manger.
So this conjunction appears again in 2020–and at Christmas, too. Is this some kind of sign from God? Who knows what a sign looks like today, anyway? I had to see this star for myself.
Last night was a clear night, and I usually walk my dog in the evening. So I thought that if I took my dog on a walk after supper and went to the ball fields at the school behind our neighborhood, I might catch a glimpse of the star over the tree line. So that is what we did. My dog Natasha and I walked over to the ball fields and scanned the horizon near the setting sun. Or at least, I did–I don’t think Natasha was that interested.
When we got to the schoolyard, we discovered that we were not alone. At least four other families had the same idea to walk their dogs over by the ball fields. There was an older couple with a poodle, a young family with a yellow lab, and one or two families walking together, having at least three German shepherds between them. Somehow shepherds seemed an appropriate breed when looking for Christmas stars.
Just after dusk, a tiny point of light appeared just above the setting sun–a small star, nothing spectacular. If I had not been told where it was, I never would have noticed it. This could not possibly be the Christmas star. Then, as the sun sank lower below the horizon, the point of light grew brighter. At first, I thought this was a trick of the eye, but there seemed to be an even tinier speck of light beside it. That might be Saturn, I thought.
My fellow dog walkers were looking at it, too. One by one, each family stopped and stared like shepherds on the hillside, keeping watch over their flocks by night. We were strangers, but we shared a collective sense of wonder at what we were seeing–the same phenomenon that the wise men may have seen two thousand years ago. It was quietly awesome.
This was no miracle in the usual sense of the world. There were no singing angels or celestial lights. No laws of nature had to bend for this to happen. This conjunction of planets was caused by celestial mechanics moving over billions of years, allowing these two planets to align themselves relative to ours on this one night, so we would see it. It was the natural result of ancient processes, set in motion from creation. Scientists knew about this for hundreds of years. But to us who watched, it was a sign, an omen nevertheless, one that I doubt I should ever forget.
Many surprises come to us out of nowhere in the nativity story–angels appear, tyrants order mass murders, rich men show up unexpectedly with wonderful presents for the Christ Child. This year, there have been many surprises, too–most of them bad. But whether a surprise seems to us good or bad, they shake us up and leave us reeling. It doesn’t take many surprises to know we have had enough.
Fortunately for us, God doesn’t just appear to us through surprises. He also shows Himself in the ordinary stuff of life. The angels on the hillside appeared suddenly, but the baby took nine months to grow. Star alignments are not sudden, either. We may not know what’s happening, but the universe’s slow turning even now is moving our way. God shows Himself when He surprises us with miracles, but God is also there in the night sky, in the green fields, in crying babies, and in the love that touches us daily.
This year, God has brought rapid changes into our lives, and it has shaken many of us up. I know it has shaken me. But when the surprises get too hard to bear, He still speaks in the ordinarys mechanics of life, assuring us with his steadiness and calling us to be calm. God is in the turning of the world, as He is present in our ordinary days. Joy disappears suddenly, but then it returns again. Christmas comes, even in a dumpster fire year like this one. Pandemics end one day, but hope goes on.
The Christmas star was an ordinary star, but God spoke through it. He leads us gently through the ordinary until we arrive somewhere extraordinary. God works through all eternity to bring us to where we are right now. We don’t need miracles to see Him–He is all around. When we look for Him, we see Him. Then, ordinary life events become extraordinary, the natural becomes supernatural, and all things become messengers of Divine blessings upon us. Like a mother’s kiss at the end of a bad day, God prepared this star to appear at the end of this dumpster fire of a year. “Don’t worry.” He says, “It will be all right. Settle down and enjoy Christmas. “