By Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
It is not by coincidence that the word for “heaven” is the same as the word for “sky” in so many languages. To the writers of Scripture, the attributes that we find in the heavens, in contemplating the starry sky, are the same attributes that we find in God.
The first and most obvious attribute of God is his greatness. But one can look even deeper and see, not only grandeur, but also harmony, balance, and beauty. That is what the author of Sirach saw in the way the Creator has made the stars:
Sir 42:24 – 43:10 All things come in pairs, one opposite the other, and he has made nothing incomplete. Each supplements the virtues of the other. Who could ever tire of seeing his glory? The pride of the higher realms is the clear vault of the sky, as glorious to behold as the sight of the heavens.
The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises what a marvelous instrument it is, the work of the Most High. At noon it parches the land, and who can withstand its burning heat? A man tending a furnace works in burning heat, but three times as hot is the sun scorching the mountains; it breathes out fiery vapors, and its bright rays blind the eyes. Great is the Lord who made it; at his orders it hurries on its course.
It is the moon that marks the changing seasons, governing the times, their everlasting sign. From the moon comes the sign for festal days, a light that wanes when it completes its course. The new moon, as its name suggests, renews itself; how marvelous it is in this change, a beacon to the hosts on high, shining in the vault of the heavens!
The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven, a glittering array in the heights of the Lord. On the orders of the Holy One they stand in their appointed places; they never relax in their watches.
But there is a more subtle yet important lesson that the writers of Scripture find in the nature of Creation. It is not enough that the stars are astonishing; what is even more astonishing is that we, also the creatures of this same Creator, have been given the opportunity and the ability to appreciate and understand them. In this, the writers of Scripture see God’s everlasting love for his people.
Notice how the writer of Psalm 8 progresses in this way, from amazement at the glory of the One who made these stars, to the glory of the One who made us able to be amazed:
To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
For all of that, though, we know that we are weak. We are fearful; and in our fear, we are tempted to trust to our own immediate abilities rather than to trust in God. I certainly remember a time in my own life when I was first sent to Africa, and felt terribly alone and homesick. Sitting alone under the stars was balm to my soul; no
matter how much I missed familiar food and friends, no matter how strange I found the culture or the climate, by looking up at the familiar stars in their well-loved patterns of the constellations I knew that I was still in the same world as the one I had grown up in, when I had learned those constellations at my father’s knee.
Jeremiah has apparently had the same experience; he used the regularity of the heavens as evidence of God’s steadfast love in a frightening, unsettled world. And in that steadfastness is our hope for better times.
Jer 31:31-38 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever.
The same message is found in the Psalms:
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;
Who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever;
Who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever;
Who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever;
Who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever;
The sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever;
The moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever…
And this takes us finally to the most surprising attribute of the heavens. Not only are they huge, not only are they marching in their paths in a mathematical rigor, but they are also beautiful — with a beauty exceeded only by the wisdom of God:
Wis 7:15-30 May God grant me to speak with judgment, and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received; for he is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise. For both we and our words are in his hand, as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals, the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots; I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.
There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.
For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)