12 December 2008

Star of Wonder

There was a wise man once, a wise man who had spent his fortune building observatories and charting the location of the stars.

One night, as he looked at the constellation, Cassiopeia, a strange sight appeared.  Glimmering at the top of the constellation, near the top of the throne, bright as Venus, shone a star that hadn't been there before.

The wise man consulted his charts, believed to be the most accurate in the world at the time.  Not only was he a keen observer of the stars, he was inventor of the parallax, a device used to measure the movement of the planets--and the fixedness of the stars.  Corresponding with fellow astronomers, the wise man came to a revolutionary conclusion.  Next to the star's place in his records, he wrote the words, "Nova stella"--new star.

Over the next week the nova stella  appeared even in the daytime sky.  Gradually, however, the star began to fade.  Sixteen months later, it disappeared.

This wise man was Tycho Brahe, the richest man in Denmark.  And the date he saw nova stella  was November 11, 1572.  The star shone brilliantly for the first two weeks of that month, visible even during the day.  Then, over the next 16 months, it gradually faded from white to yellow, yellow to orange, orange to red, and red to black.

Tycho's nova stella was not a welcome sight in Europe in 1572.  Its existence was, in fact, heretical.  The Bible taught that the heavens had been made by God.  They were fixed.  Unchanging.  Perfect, untouched by sin.  And they hung in the heavens to--like the sun and moon--revolve around the earth!  

That passed for orthodoxy in the Europe of Tycho's Star as the nova is now known.  Thirty years prior to nova stella, Copernicus had published his conclusions that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun.  It would be another 40 years before Galileo, using the newly invented telescope, would confirm these theories definitively.  In fact, Tycho's carefully calibrated charting of the planets and stars had hoped to synthesize Copernicus's calculations with church orthodoxy.

That was before nova stella, a name that would be shortened to "nova" for stars that appeared and died out in this way.

In 1604, another nova appeared in the heavens.  Johannes Kepler, a protege of Tycho and the mathematician who described the revolutions of the planets, confirmed a second nova stella, erasing all doubt that stars are born and that stars die out in the wide, wide universe.

What is a nova?  It is better to begin with a simpler question:  what is a star?

Despite the way our own star, the Sun, looks in the sky, a star is not a ball.  There is no surface, no skin, no place where one might land on or walk upon a star.  A star is actually a delicate balance of the most powerful forces in nature:  gravity and fusion.  The gravity of our star is a tremendous force, capable of holding huge planets like Earth, Saturn and Jupiter suspended in orbit from millions of miles away and able to sling comets like Halley on 75-year round-trip journeys to the edge of the solar system and reel them back.

Within the star, the tremendous gravity draws hydrogen molecules into its core.  As they hurtle toward the center, the molecules collide and heat to such extreme temperatures that nuclear reactions take place, turning the hydrogen into helium and expelling force with this fusion.  As the hydrogen is used up, helium makes carbon, which makes oxygen, which makes neon, as it moves up the Periodic Table to the heavier elements.  The "skin" or "circle" in which we see the sun is simply the place at which the exploding energy and the in-drawing seem to be in balance.

A nova occurs when the balance that forms the star is upset--usually when the hydrogen runs out or when the creation of iron (Fe) brings the whole process to a jolting stop.  Less energy is expelled, so the star implodes, sometimes creating a black hole, other times creating a blinding-bright nova.

In star terms, our Sun isn't quite capable of creating a massive nova.  It's a pick-up truck, if you will:  reliable, slow, small (in star terms).  Scientists predict it will run out of fuel in 5 billion years or so, at which point it will bulge with a giant burp and then sleep eternally as a dwarf star.

The stars that create novas are white giants--Lamborghinis, if you will.  They live fast and die hard, using up huge amounts of fuel in their lifespans.  As the hydrogen gets used up, you can imagine a Lamborghini going from 101 octane fuel to 97 to 93 to 87 to beer to rubbing alcohol and then to water, at which point it would lock up (or explode, I guess).  

When the delicate balance is upset, what happens?


Light streams across the universe, coupled with x-rays and gamma rays.  Years pass, decades, centuries.  Then we might, if we're lucky, see what happened in our night sky.  Indeed, the explosion that lit the sky above Denmark in 1572 was 7,500 years old!

What about Christmas?
You probably saw the title, "Star of Wonder," but now you're growing frustrated that a mediocre English teacher proves to be such a terrible astronomy teacher.

The fact is that theories about as to the star that guided the wise men to Jerusalem:  planetary convergence, comets, shining bands of angels, etc.  All that we do know is that wise men claimed to have known about Christ's birth because of a star (Matthew 2).

This is compounded by the fact that the exact year of Christ's birth is uncertain.  The Gregorian Calendar, which separated history into Before Christ and Anno Domine appears inaccurate when one considers the established fact that Herod the Great, ruler at the time of Christ's birth, died in 4 BC.  Most scholars actually put Christ's birth somewhere in the years 6 to 4 BC.

But there are obvious parallels with novas in the Christmas story.  A new star, stella nova, appeared in the heavens.  It burned bright--possibly bright enough to see during the daytime--and expired a few months later.  In fact, Chinese astronomers recorded a kho-hsing or "guest star" in the constellation Capricorn in 5 BC (Tycho's Star would be the first nova recorded by a European).  It appeared sometime between March 10 and April 7 of that year, lasting for 70 days.

The appearance of this "guest star" would signalled revolution for the astronomers learned enough to notice it.  Persia, where presumably the magi originated, was closely tied with Judea--its king, Cyrus, had been named "Messiah" by the writer of Isaiah, and one of the most famous Jews to prophesy about Messiah, Daniel, had ended his life in Persia.

Another revolution appears in the worldview of the Jewish world in which this star appeared.  As the world of Tycho was geo-centric or Earth-centered, the religion of Judea was temple-centric.  Salvation came through the temple, and its gates were barred by the corrupt practices of the Temple elite and Sanhedrin.  When John proclaims that the "light has come into the world," it truly is nova stella:  a temple destroyed and resurrected in three days to become Emmanuel, God within every person (not within the temple).

The nova says even more about God and the marvelous ways that He works.

Try this with me.  Imagine going back in time to about 5 BC.  Look over the shoulders of the magi as they scan the heavens and remark upon the bright new star in Capricorn.  

Now go back centuries, thousands of years to the moment the star actually exploded.  If Tycho's Star is any comparison, this spectacular moment of death took place anywhere between 7,500 and 10,000 years before it burst into the view of the magi.

If this is true, then God is here.  To me, this means that the destiny of the human race was set before humanity as we know it existed--before Daniel, before David, before Abraham, before Noah, before anybody, the light that bore news of nova stella was on its way toward Earth.

That thought makes me rethink nearly every story of the Old Testament.  I think of Sarah, giggling with doubt at the thought of a son, much less one who would father a great nation.  Yet in the 10 seconds or so of her laughter, the light of nova stella had advanced 2 million miles through space!  I imagine Elijah, fearing for his life and the loss of God's work in Israel.  Does he realize that nova stella is on its way?

This is the God that I believe in:  the One who created the Universe and set it in motion.  He sealed the destiny of my world and countless others thousands upon thousands of years ago.  He is the minder of the gaps that connect worlds upon worlds.

To me, that means that a New Heaven and a New Earth are already made, streaming through space for my arrival.  The fulfillment of Christ's promise, "I go to prepare a place for you--" hurtles toward me at the speed of light.

Where God can be found, there is also faith:  my hopes made manifest, my fears dispersed before I knew to ask.  The resolution of all matters was set in motion before I existed.  That's why the prophet does not say, "Those who pray to the Lord shall renew their strength," he says, "Those who wait upon the Lord...."  The Answer is coming at light speed--and well worth the wait.

Lord, give me eyes to see nova stella.  Give me a heart of faith that waits upon You.

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