It’s the most wonderful… stressful time of the year! Well, maybe not the most stressful time of the year, but Christmas definitely has an atmosphere of hustle and bustle. Whether it be shopping for gifts, decorating our homes, or making plans to be with family, it is easy to forget the reason why we give so much attention to the weeks ahead: The celebration of the Incarnation.
Now there were shepherds in that region
living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you
who is Messiah and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace
to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8-14)
Amid the Christmas parties, plays, concerts, and movies, there is an inner need to create a space of contemplation and silence to reflect, as did the shepherds, upon this great mystery. Something that aids our contemplation is the crèche, with Jesus placed in a manger while Mary and Joseph reverence the newborn Messiah. This year, a full moon and a rather peculiar, two tailed comet named Catalina will join this Christmas scene. In light of this, there will be wonders in the night sky as, during the day, we celebrate the wonder of Christmas!
So, is there any Christian significance to a full moon on Christmas? Nope. How about some gloom and doom with this “Christmas Comet?” No way, no need to go there. Throw the conspiracy theories out the window, sit back, and enjoy these nighttime wonders as you sip a little eggnog and unwrap your gifts. For me, the only significance these astronomical events offer are personal: The memories of a Christmas Eve full moon from 1996.
Whenever I think of night when Jesus was born, I recall Christmas Eve, 1996. I was halfway through my second Senior year at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point and was home for Christmas. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, wide awake, knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep for a while. Quietly, I walked through my parents’ house, hoping not to wake anyone. As I looked out the kitchen windows, I was struck with how bright it was outside, a result of the light from the full moon and its reflection off the snow.
I decided to slip on my coat and boots and go outside to look at the moon for a while. When I went outside, the moon was beautiful, and the night was still and silent. I remember just leaning on the railing of our deck, looking across the fields of our central Wisconsin farm. I was struck with how the moon made things so bright that it almost felt like day. Suddenly, I heard something off in the distance briefly cry out, breaking the silence (probably a fox). The cry echoed through the night like the harmonious decay of a choir that arrives at the final cadence of a motet. Something grabbed my emotions in that moment and prompted me to ask, “Was that what it was like to hear the sound of the distant cries of Jesus the night he was born?” My heart rested in peace and I stayed outside as long as my body would allow me before the cold forced me back inside. I will never forget that mystical night!
The Catholic Astronomer explores astronomy from different perspectives: the professional, the amateur, the hobbyists, the priest, the religious, and the layperson. Each perspective provides a different filter to understand the universe we live in and how our faith connects us with the God who created this world of wonder. I don’t know what prompted each author of The Catholic Astronomer to pursue astronomy. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if they had many nights that were similar to my Christmas experience from 1996. Astronomy has enriched our world with wonderment, presenting us with fundamental questions about the world we live in. Astronomy also allows us moments to step back and simply gaze at the beauty of God’s creation. Let us take a moment this Christmas to quiet our hearts, placing ourselves in prayerful contemplation, and allow ourselves to be taken, once again, with the beauty and wonder of the universe. In that contemplative gaze, let us give thanks for the moment when Creator and creation came together in the mystery of the Incarnation. Let us listen in prayerful silence for the gentle cries of our Lord, Jesus Christ, calling us to embrace a life of faith, hope, love, and peace.