I recall with clarity a night when my wife and I were on vacation in California. We had spent the day hiking in the mountains and in the afternoon had descended to explore the mysterious and ancient landscape of Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America. Pinned to the information board by the parking lot was a sign advertising a talk by a park ranger that very evening: “Stars over Mono Lake.” And so it was. That evening we found ourselves lying on the ancient sands, looking up at a night sky in which a million points of light glowed with an intensity I’d never seen before. The air was cold and clear, the hauntingly beautiful desert silence broken only by the occasional howl of a lonely coyote, cry of an insomniac gull, or call for help of a distant and woefully lost tourist.
But it was the sky that really struck me. I’d never seen it so beautiful before. In the city where we live, light pollution drowns out the splendor of the stars. Lights do punctuate the Toronto night, but they tend to be of the red-amber-green-red variety. What I was seeing, lying on those freezing sands at Mono Lake, was the spectacular sight of the night sky in all its glory. It was, for me, God’s handiwork writ large as a myriad of stars lay twinkling above me. I was awestruck and listened with fascination at the park ranger’s talk on the stars above, in particular the various constellations that slowly wheeled in front of us: the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion, Aquarius.
And as I looked up, I was reminded of a biblical passage about stars, one that is meant to be descriptive of Christians. The apostle Paul is speaking to the Philippian believers about the kind of community their association with Jesus compels them to be: “Therefore, my dear friends… do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.”(1)
When I heard that passage again a few months later, my mind was immediately cast back to that night at Mono Lake and to the journey of the constellations and patterns that generations of people have seen before me. Understanding these constellations brought the night sky alive and told stories whose characters are bedecked in the very stars. And this got me thinking about the metaphor Paul uses. What does it mean to shine like stars in the Christian story? What does it mean for a person to burn brightly against the inky blackness of night? And particularly, as Christians around the world remember the account of the magi—the astrologers who followed a star that eventually stopped over the place where the young Jesus lay—is the same story being told in expectancy, hope, and light today?
Well, there are, of course, many different types of stars, but the hope I take from that starry evening centers around a few vivid memories. To begin with, constellations are made up of stars which, on their own, would be but one small, glowing dot in the darkness, but together form a bigger picture; together, they tell a more powerful story. Nobody has heard of the star “Merak,” for instance, but everyone has heard of the constellation it is a part of: the “Big Dipper” or the “Plough,” one of the most famous formations in the sky. Together, stars in constellations tell a story greater than their individual parts, and how true this is of people as well. It’s best not to judge a religion by the testimony of one bold but fleeting light. Rather, the constellation of millions through the centuries, the example of believers young and old, across tribes and nations, the witness of those who first beheld the events of Jesus of Nazareth—these are the stars that light the universe with something to ponder.
Moreover, constellations don’t stand still. They move. In particular, they rotate, slowly wheeling around a singular fixed point in the night sky—the “North” or “Pole” Star. Significantly, Christians together tell the story of hope in darkness when their axis is God alone—not an issue or a common interest—but the person of Christ who was born, died, and raised. The expectant Christian story continues to be told, as it was to the magi long ago, when the Christ child is the fixed point, our north star, our pole star, when it is he who determines how we move and turn.
Many years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands.”(2)
To sailors and navigators, before the invention of GPS, the North Star was crucial; by orientating oneself to it, you could find your way home through the wildest seas. Likewise, it is Christ’s story that makes the collective light of Christianity shine brightly amidst the darkness. It is Jesus himself, around which everything turns, who is heaven’s bright sun, whose radiance glows brighter than the brightest star, so much so that the new heavens and the new earth need neither sun nor moon. The splendor of this sight is worth beholding indeed.
Andy Bannister is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Toronto, Canada.
(1) Philippians 2:12-16.
(2) Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 137.