January 12, 2021 – Roger W. Lowther
When I was a child, I was really into astronomy. My father took me to visit observatories every chance we got. I remember attending some big events in Boston that were public lectures and then going home to document the findings myself with my own telescope. I journaled and drew the movement of sunspots across the sun, and the moons around Jupiter. I read every issue of the magazine Astronomy and had all the constellations and major stars of the sky memorized. I even led viewing nights for elementary school kids giving a short talk on what we were about to see, finding it, and then showing it to them through a telescope. If God took all the trouble to make all these beautiful things, I figured, the least I could do was to get to know them a little bit. I really thought I was going to work for NASA, but music carried me in a different direction.
Anyway, on December 21 there was a really important event in the sky, you may have seen it, the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Just after sunset, many lined up along the river that runs through the center of Tokyo, pointing their cameras and telescopes skyward to catch a glimpse of it. I was one of them! The sixteenth century astronomer Kepler believed this same conjunction was the original “Christmas star” that brought the wise men to seek Jesus.
Every year, we sing about the stars in Christmas. One of my favorites are these lines from the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Phillips Brooks, a Boston native like myself, wrote these words in the reverse order of what most people expect. Usually, “when you wish upon a star,” people think your dreams come true. But here, Brooks points us elsewhere and makes the stars witnesses to this event.
The stars are full of stories: animals and gods, love and war, heroes and villains. From ages past, men and women have looked up at the stars of the sky and whispered their hopes and fears.
Some make a wish when they see a shooting star. Others check the positions of the planets and stars to make important decisions. While I’ve never had much interest in either of these, I do love the stories behind the constellations. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been reading about them.
When I came to Japan, I learned about the Tanabata Star Festival through my son’s kindergarten, a story of love found, love lost, and love regained once again.
Hikoboshi the Cowherd and Orihime the Weaver Girl fall deeply in love. Orihime’s father, the king of heaven, does not approve and banishes them to opposite sides of the Amanogawa (the “Heavenly River” or better known to English speakers as the Milky Way). However, every year on July 7, the seventh day of the seventh month, he relents and a huge flock of birds form a bridge to allow these two star-crossed lovers to reunite for a single day. In the abundance of their joy, they grant the wishes of mortal men and women on earth.
The Tanabata Festival was particularly lively in Ishinomaki in the summer of 2011. So many people now lived in temporary home complexes, and so many buildings still stood broken and unusable.
Yukiko looked at the colorful strips of paper tied to bamboo grass. On each, a short prayer was written.
I want to be a soccer star.
I pray I can find a job.
May there be peace on earth.
Yukiko tried to think of a wish. But what did she really want, she wondered. The tsunami had taken everything from her. Her mother and sister were now dead. Her husband left her. Her father, coping with his own sense of loss, no longer spoke to her.
She was alone.
Everything she took for granted before was now gone: family, friends, home, job, town. She felt there was nothing to live for.
Yukiko tried to pray, not even knowing who she was praying to.
“Please, if you can hear me,” she whispered, “give me something to live for.”
Sometimes, God does amazing things, surprising things, to show his great love for us. The God who created all the stars of heaven heard Yukiko’s prayer and answered.
That evening at the festival, Yukiko met some Christian women, and in the months that followed, they became good friends. She began eating with them, and even began attending a Bible study with them. Little by little, she grew to know and love the God of the Bible. And little by little, she learned how to pray to him.
In God the Father, Yukiko found a father who welcomed her into his house and wanted her around. In God the Son, she found a husband who would never forsake or leave her, a friend who would always be by her side. In God the Holy Spirit, she found rest.
Because her friends met her at a festival, they began to call her “Matsuri” Yukiko, or the “Festival Girl.” She became a joy to everyone around her, a living testimony of how God saves from despair and loss.
Two years later, on a rainy Sunday morning in July, Matsuri Yukiko walked into the waters of the sea, those same terrifying waters that took away her family and friends. She was baptized in that same ocean that was a source of so much pain and loss. On that day, the water represented an ocean of God’s love, far more expansive than she could ever fathom. Through baptism, she was transformed into a new creation, known by a new name. Yukiko’s story makes me think of the words from Isaiah.
You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah [which means “my delight is in her”], and your land Beulah [which means “married”]; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:2–5)
When we look up to the starry night skies and see the dazzling works of God’s hands, we can remember that the same God made us, loves us, and rejoices over us. We can know that one day we will be reunited with our greatest Lover, the one who will wipe away all our tears and fulfill the deepest longings and prayers of our hearts.