I’ve been thinking about the stars quite a bit these days. I grew up and have lived in or near cities my whole life, so the sky was almost entirely washed out with all those additional lights. I’d have to visit somewhere else to see more than a dozen stars, and even then, I would need to remember to look up. Here, I can see them. They’re just there. I find myself looking up quite a bit.
Whenever I think about stars, I think about Dr. Ron Olowin. Ron was an astrophysicist. I did not understand what an astrophysicist was before I met him. An astrophysicist seeks to understand the universe and everything in it using physics. I first met Ron in 2000 at a monastery in northern Mexico called Christ in the Desert. It is the most isolated monastery in the US at the end of 13 mile, rutted, dirt road. By the time I started coming there, Ron had been coming yearly for a few decades. He was a devout Catholic and loved the patterns of prayers, the quiet, and the sky.
There were few lights out that way. You could see an astounding number of stars, more than I had ever seen. In addition to his other research duties as an astrophysicist, Ron was also a professor. Between comments about the politics of the country and the politics of the monastery or debates with the caretaker about whether or not UFOs existed, the professor in Ron would leak out once in a while. If I or any other guests were present, we’d get to learn amazing, mind-blowing things.
The first year I met Ron was the first year the abbot of the Christ in the Desert had asked Ron to give a few presentations to the monks about the newest discoveries in astrophysics, particularly about how the universe formed. In 1990, the Hubble Telescope was put into orbit around the earth, and scientists had to change what they thought was true based on what they saw. This moment was exhilarating for those who studied the universe because, in 1999, the Hubble telescope had gone through some updates leading to extraordinarily clear pictures of the universe. The clearest ever. Again, some things that scientists once thought to be true were being disproved or significantly changed.
Since Ron had all of his slides for the presentation he did for the monks, he did a modified presentation for all of us who were guests, too. I can’t say that I’d done a lot of thinking about the stars and the universe up until that point. Again, the stars hadn’t been something I could ever see that well. What Ron shared messed with me.
If all the clouds in the sky could be erased, and every single light around the world was to be turned off, all the humans on earth could see a total of about 10,000 stars in the sky. Before Hubble, telescopes, and science had already progressed enough that scientists knew that billions of stars were in the universe, making up millions of galaxies. After Hubble, scientists discovered that the universe was even bigger. Many things they thought were slightly fuzzy stars in space were actually galaxies containing millions of stars, not individual stars.
It also helped astrophysicists like Ron get more of a 3d vision and a view back in time, closer to the universe’s beginnings. This was another moment that blew me away, and I’ll do the best I can to explain it. We all know that the speed of light is very fast, but it takes a little while for waves of light to move from one place to another. The moon is about 240,000 miles away, and the light from the moon takes about 1 and 1/3 seconds to get to earth. So in some ways, when we’re looking at the moon, we’re looking back in time about 1 and 1/3 seconds. The sun is about 93 million miles away, and the light from the sun takes about eight and a half minutes to get to earth. So, if we were to look at the sun, it’s like we’re looking back about eight and a half minutes. The farthest star we can see with the naked eye is 16,308 light years away, so when we see it, it’s like looking back in time 16,308 years. Using every scientific tool we have, the farthest star we have yet to see is 28 billion light years away, so when scientists look through a telescope and see that star, it’s like looking back in time 28 billion years.
The immensity of time and space took my breath away. I can’t say that I understood everything that Ron said. Still, I understood enough to gather that, compared to the universe, I am tiny. Compared to the universe’s age, my life is short. In addition to the desert being so dark you can see the stars, it is also so quiet you can hear your heartbeat, and mine wouldn’t slow down that night. My life suddenly didn’t seem to matter all that much.
I shared that sense with Ron the next day, and what he said stuck with me. He said something like, “I’ve come to understand that even though what we understand about our place in the universe is true in one way, the other truth is that this reality doesn’t make this moment any less important. On the contrary, this moment is a tremendous gift.”
148:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
148:2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
148:3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
148:4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
148:5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
148:6 He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
148:8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
148:9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
148:10 Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
148:11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
148:12 Young men and women alike, old and young together!
148:13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
148:14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!”
When I read Psalm 148, I can’t help but be swept up in the tide of praise that comes from all living and nonliving things on earth and beyond earth; the moon, the sun, all the stars in the sky, and the galaxies they are a part of and, maybe, the universes they are all part of. Our praise may seem small compared to all of that, but it would be sorely missed if it were not there. There is room for our praise of all that God is. As we recognize the change from one year to the next, we are reminded that taking the time for praise matters.
Praise and thanksgiving are different. With thanksgiving, we appreciate all that God has done, but with praise, we appreciate all that God is. It is that feeling of awe and thanks for what God is.
This coming Friday is Epiphany. Among many things, it’s a holiday that celebrates the wise men or kings who, by looking at a star in the sky, felt awe for something God was doing in Bethlehem. So much so that they wanted to come, see, and give honor to this reality. They came to celebrate and praise this child not for what they had done but for who they were. They came not just to thank God for the gift of Jesus but to honor what God had done or would do through Jesus. It’s the difference between recognizing and appreciating the purpose of a craft well made for a particular function and recognizing and appreciating a piece of art made for its own sake. Both are acts of gratitude, and both are important.
In a few moments, Becky and I are going to be sharing communion with you, and in the traditional language we’ll use today is this exchange:
“God be with you
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to God.
Let us give thanks to God Most High.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.”
My Siblings in Christ, as you take communion today, watch others take communion, too. As you look around at each other, remember that each person you see is made by God of the same elements the stars are made of and that the stars are made of the same elements we are. You matter. They matter. This moment matters. As you take communion today, lift up your heart and join in the chorus of all creation, knowing that your voice is needed to complete it.
It is right to give thanks and praise. It is right to give thanks and praise.