Friday, September 27, 2013

More stars than the eye can count

At 6 o'clock this fifth morning of autumn, I looked up from my task of taking the dog out and saw the brightly shining "Dog Star," Sirius, of the constellation Canis Major twinkling against a blue-black velvet sky. Lifting my eyes farther, I found Orion, its signature stars Betelgeuse and Rigal, along with the three perfectly aligned stars comprising the hunter's belt and the fainter straight-in-line stars of his sword. Orion has hunted across the heavens for eons, battling Taurus, the wild bull to the northwest, followed by his two hunting dogs, one of which holds the brightest star in the heavens.

The moon, just a quarter full, shone high above Sirius, showing that fourth magnitude star what real brightness is. From my back yard surrounded by tall trees and hindered by city lights, I could not make out the Pleiades, though I knew they were there, just to the right of Taurus' brighter fixtures.

Orion, Taurus and Canis Major are winter constellations. In a month or two, they will be gone from the predawn darkness and will rise after sunset, giving brightness to the long winter nights. When I was a child fascinated with astronomy in an era boldly called The Space Age, I lived in a rural area with "good sky" — low horizons framed by distant trees and a lack of light pollution from the few houses and no streetlights within eyesight. I could stand on a little hillock in the back yard and feel the expansiveness of the universe lit by distant stars. Orion marked my winters, the Big Dipper and Polaris marked true north, and on clear summer nights, the Milky Way spiraled across the sky in uncountable pinpricks of light against the darkness.

How far we have come since that night 3,000 or so years ago, when God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. No doubt, Abraham stood in the lightless night gazing up into the heavens sparkling with light from the low horizon to zenith. Those stars, like a brightly colored scarf, cascaded above him. That was a promise beyond measure attested by a sky filled with more stars than all of humanity could count.

Were that promise made today, God and Abraham would have to find a different comparison. Look up into the sky tonight, and you might see half a dozen stars or a dozen — not so many progeny to become a great people; not so many stars to fill the sky. All the millions of faint stars will have faded into the darkness of artificial light. Fortunate are those who can see the sky as Abraham saw it, full of stars and of promise.

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