Sunday, November 23, 2014

Look! Up in the Sky!

If Jesus' coming to the world is not written in the stars, it's at least announced there. Mark 13:24-27 describes the sun and moon, stars, clouds and the very ends of the heavens as part of the announcement of Jesus' return. The gospel advises believers to be watchful and to know these signs in the heavens for what they are. It is difficult to imagine that anyone - believer or not - wouldn't be focused on the heavenly upheavals described in the reading. We can imagine the uncertainty brought about by a darkened sun and moon accompanied by shooting stars.

The falling stars that Mark's gospel describes might be captured most accurately by Jean Francois Millet in his Starry Night. Stars shoot across the sky while a warm glow hovers on the horizon. Trees are silhouetted against the glow, and a road - barely discernible in the darkness - leads us into the painting. While nineteenth-century France might have been more fascinated than afraid of such heavenly fireworks, centuries earlier, shooting stars might have been easily lumped in the same category as comets, which were usually considered bad omens.
Jean-Francois Millet. Starry Night. ca. 1850-1865. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery. 1961.22.

Millet's painting is quite accurate. Compare the Millet painting above to the NASA photo of the annual Geminid Meteor Shower in 2013. The photo is a time lapse photo (over three hours) taken near China's Dashanbao Wetlands.

The most famous starry night in art, however, was surely created by Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh knew Millet's work, admired it and indeed copied of some of the older artist's paintings (though always in his own style). While the subject of Millet's painting might have influenced Van Gogh's choice of subject, the later painting is clearly not a copy.
Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, NYC. 472.1941.

Stars had meaning for Van Gogh. He wrote to his brother Theo, "...the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream. Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France. Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star." (Letter 638, 1888) 

Mark 13 is not the first time that the heavens have announced Jesus' arrival. Stars and angels were also part of Jesus' first visit to earth. With the falling stars here on Advent 1B and the travelling star on Christmas, this season is bookended with the experience of looking up in the sky. Mark's gospel (along with the Christmas story that we know is coming) reminds us that when it comes to Christ, ultimately it is not death that we should associate with stars racing and tumbling through the heavens. Instead it is life.

The 2014 Geminid Meteor Showers will occur between December 7 and 17, peaking the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th. Why not go outside, read Mark's gospel, read of the star in Matthew's gospel and look up in the sky.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 1B (Isaiah 64:1-9), click here.

What does the image at left contribute to the discussion of the gospel lesson for Advent 1B? Click here for a Facebook post that explains.. 

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