Friday, December 25, 2009


Four hundred years ago, Johannes Kepler worked out the motions of the planets around the sun, and discovered a mathematical basis for determining the location of any planet at any time in history. In doing so, he plotted the positions of the planets back to 7 BCE, and discovered that in that year, the planet Saturn had passed behind Jupiter. Because of the motion of the Earth relative to the other planets, an Earth-bound observer would have seen Saturn appear to merge with Jupiter, then reverse its motion and pass Jupiter again, then move in regular orbital motion once more. Astronomers and astrologers call this a triple conjunction; they occur at irregular intervals. The last one took place in 1981, and the next one will take place in 2238.

In the Middle Eastern astrology of the time, the planet Jupiter had an association with kingship, and Saturn had an association with Judea.To the astrologers of the first century Mediterranean basin, and probably to the Zoroastrian astrologer-priests known as the Magi, a triple conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter would have meant the birth of a new king for Judea, then ruled by a puppet king and a Roman imperial governor.

The basic unit of astronomic distance, the light year, indicates distances and speeds that we find difficult to grasp. A single light year contains over nine trillion kilometres; if every man, woman, and child on Earth traveled the distance between Toronto and Winnipeg, we would cumulatively have traveled about one light year. Yet we can see the Andromeda Galaxy, two and a half million light years away, with our own eyes; and telescopes can detect the light of objects even farther away. Darkness does not overcome light.

These things we know from observation and from calculation; what Ursula LeGuin called "number the indispoutable". Other things we experience; the sense that the birth of a child brings a chance for redemption and renewal, and experience of birth as a spiritual, rather than just a biological, event. And sacred writings handed down to us over the centuries tell us still more:
But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
Merry Christmas, everyone.

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