Left: Abbott Handerson Thayer, Winged Figure on a Rock (1903/16), oil on canvas. Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C.
“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:1-2, NASB).
Somewhere in every picture of the Biblical Christmas scene—eliciting warm and happy emotions—is a star. The star dominates the nighttime sky with its size and brightness and its long tail pointing to the earth.
Wait a minute…TAIL? xxxxxx
Were the authors of the New Testament formulating the Christian narrative in the centuries following Jesus’ death, referring to a comet? It would appear to make sense: a uniquely-shaped celestial object appearing briefly, visible both day and night, and with an apparent directional path. Whether a comet made an appearance in the years surrounding that long-ago event is subject to debate; but even then, the rich symbolic value of the comet as a prophetic device was widely accepted. Virgin births, manifestations of the gods in human form, death and resurrection were not novel concepts in ancient civilizations. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman religions all contained these references. And the appearance of a comet, too, was not unfamiliar as a symbol of foreboding or divine providence, depending on particular circumstances. The Way (the name for the early Christian movement) adopted many of these devices in their own chronology, in order to gain acceptance by errant pagan sects prevalent in far-flung regions of today’s Near East.
It is no coincidence that St. Matthew’s version of the guiding ‘star’ appeared in the east, the cardinal point on the ancient compass symbolizing wisdom (west-beauty; south-passion; north-darkness). Our Christmas carols remind us that the ‘Three Kings’ hailed from ‘The Orient.’ The Orient, and ‘oriental’ are the land and people to the East, denoting a place of wisdom. They travel westward (“westward leading, still proceeding”)—toward ‘beauty’ in the form of the new born Christ child. Remember, too, that East-er’s namesake is the direction of our life-renewing, rising sun [Son].
Only in more recent centuries have science and mysticism not been so hopelessly intertwined.
In the modern world, comets as cosmic messengers from the gods seem to have lost their edge. And as we probe deeper into space with our rockets and satellites, particularly when we prove ourselves capable of bouncing a large air conditioner-sized object with stilts with pinpoint accuracy, onto the surface of a comet 38-million miles away traveling at 18,000 mile per hour, does the romance—and mysterious power—of comets seem to be on the wane?
That earthly dome of blue sky arcing over our heads still conceals many mysteries. We are separated from the endless and vacuous expanse of black space by only a paper thin, diaphanous veil of life-sustaining gases. For time immemorial, as intelligent life raised its collective head toward the clouds, the question was asked: what lies beyond? Folklore and faith, superstition and surmise sought to fill the void in our understanding of the infinite. For some, the answer became ‘heaven,’ an otherworldly paradise where the departed would eventually reside in the presence of hosts of angels and a divine, omnipotent God. Over millennia, the narrative that shaped our understanding of this faraway place, the dominion of the faithful and blessed, was elaborated on and reinforced by artists, authors and philosophers, alike. Soon, there were as many versions of that heavenly sphere as there were gravity-bound religious sects.
We have discovered that timeless infinity has learned to be patient with us, waiting billions of years for us to come to grips with…well, its infinitude. Stars—suns in their own right—drift in numbers beyond counting, solitary beacons separated by yet more billions of miles from each other. Given the vast complexity of this nearly incomprehensible reality, it is sad to learn that the average city dweller can see fewer than twenty stars between the towering buildings of our light-drenched, crowded urban centers; suburbanites manage to catch a glimpse of about 200; and the darkened skies of rural settings raise the curtain, on any given clear night, to about 2000 celestial bodies. The sensory feast of an unencumbered look at the vast expanse of the Milky Way, a highway of starlight stretching from horizon-to-horizon, which is, in fact, the edge-on view of our own galaxy, is reserved for a mere few: sailors at sea, mountaintop hikers, select scientists and inhabitants of those shrinking corners of the globe where light trespass has not yet obscured our nocturnal panorama.
Science has proven that this obscure setting we call space is in a constant state of flux—expanding, contracting and morphing into unimaginably exotic and exquisitely beautiful natural formations. Space is redolent with change—a process that began at the Creation, and continues unabated, even as you read this today. Occasionally, we are sent a reminder of the state of flux in the Universe. It comes in the form of a meteor shower, flashing through our atmosphere, rarely impacting earth before self-immolating. Other visitors from deep space, those time-honored comets, frequently rocket past us in the near reaches of space, trailing gaseous plumage that make for spectacular night-time viewing. We are newly aware of their ubiquity by advances in cosmic observation, making the prospect of a close, or catastrophic encounter with one of these celestial runaways more than a source of vague concern.
In the same way that the lives of the ancients seemed linked in unlikely and surprising ways to the appearance and trajectory of comets, our continued existence as civilization here on Earth now seems affected by our new, scientific understanding of comets and their behavior. There was dramatic video of a recent catastrophe in Russia, where a Volkswagen-sized meteor struck a populated area, causing an explosion that broke windows for miles around, and injuring more than a thousand people. The incident serves as a reminder that big, scary things can go bump in the night, with dire consequences. Our 20th century preoccupation with nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviets has been replaced by a far different threat—one made more ominous by its unknown, and unknowable capacity for destruction. Comets register earthly near-misses on a far too regular basis, raising the specter of the possibility that the next one might wreak havoc, Deep Impact style. There have been over 100 movies made since 1950 with the “end of life on earth as we know it” scenario being played out on the big screen; so it must be on our minds.
This potential, but unseen threat, helps explain why the seemingly erudite scientific accomplishment by a European space team’s successful landing of Philae on the comet, 67P a few weeks ago is so relevant to us all. Unlike civilizations’ past, held captive by the oracular certainty of life-altering consequences under the pall of a comet flaring through the heavens, we have now demonstrated the capacity to place an object on a comet—this time for research purposes. But the implications for future generations remain enormous. If necessity calls for us to act, that same delivery system, crossing the boundless reaches of space, could plant a powerful explosive device on the surface of a comet, destroying or altering the course of that giant rock.
And to quote the tag line from Deep Impact (1999): “oceans rise, cities fall, but hope survives.” Civilization as we know it—for better or worse—might endure and prosper in spite of that rare intergalactic interloper, a time traveler as old as time itself.
Left: Comet 67P size relative to City of Los Angeles. Photo: Matt Wang
Thanks for reading ARTES magazine.
Happy Holidays as you look skyward for your New Year’s guiding star.
Richard J. Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor