Friday, First Week of Advent
“We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
-- Matthew 2:2
Christianity is sometimes accused of being a presumptuous, arrogant, belief from a primitive age when we believed that Earth and humanity were the center of the universe, both physically and spiritually. But we have abandoned the physical claim since the days of Galileo, and I suggest that we can safely abandon the spiritual one as well. If “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:25), then maybe the inattention of God is greater than the attention of men. So I don't think our faith requires us to trumpet our cosmic importance; we Earthlings might be a pretty tiny part of the divine plan. Rather than congratulating ourselves on being God's sole masterpiece, perhaps we should humbly look up into the night sky and ponder, with the author of the eighth psalm:
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
So who might God have made to share the universe with us? C.S. Lewis contemplated the existence of aliens from a Christian standpoint in his novel Out of the Silent Planet, and controversial musician Sidney Carter suggested in his song “Every Star shall sing a Carol” that other worlds might have also been visited by our Saviour:
Who can tell what other cradle,
high above the milky way,
still may rock the King of heaven
on another Christmas day?
Two 1950s science fiction stories dealt with the following reasonable question – what if the Star of Bethlehem was actually a supernova which destroyed an extraterrestrial civilization? The more famous one was “The Star”, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1955. Clarke was a skeptical man; his tale offers little cheer for the devout. After the discovery of a long-dead race by human explorers, it concludes with the despairing cry of a Jesuit astronaut: “There were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”
But in 1953, Julian May had given a very different perspective in her own story “Star of Wonder.” (Two short words make all the difference.) She wrote from the point of view of the aliens – their science had predicted the coming death of their sun, so their fleet roams throughout the galaxy searching for a new home. During this search, they stumble upon Earth, and their landing party comes across a certain child lying in a manger. They present him with gifts, but then depart, since Earth's atmosphere is poisonous to them.
Church geeks may question the appropriateness of writing about Epiphany during Advent, but “Star of Wonder” contains a subplot making it very fitting for that season, namely a series of little prayers mentally recited by the alien captain throughout the story. They didn't affect me much when I first read it years ago, but recently I noticed they are actually clever paraphrases of the “Great O Antiphons” - verses sung during the last week before Christmas in the medieval church. For example, in one of the antiphons the Latin title Rex Gentium, usually translated as “King of the Nations” or “King of the Gentiles”, is rendered as “Ruler of aliens”.
The story ends with a paraphrase of scripture itself, as the Virgin Mary speaks to the alien captain with these words from the prophet Isaiah: "Hope is here new-born to those who have waited, as He was to your world, as He will be again to those who wait for Him. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, God, the Mighty. And his empire shall be multiplied to the ends of space and there will be peace."
-- Walter Zonenberg ‘14