Fragile Beauty

December to me means Christmas, and of all the elements of the Christmas story, the one that fascinates me most is the story of the magi. It astonishes me that learned individuals would set out and travel to another land guided only by a star, and that somehow that star would help them recognize a king who had no outward, worldly signs of his majesty. What was that “new star” and what did it mean to follow it?

Learning more about what kind of astronomical event those Persian priest-kings saw only makes their quest more impressive to me. I know that some scholars have theorized the “star” was actually a comet,1a nova, an eclipse, or a planetary conjunction.2 The planetary conjunction theory is my favorite, since the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that fits the timeline I like (spring of 2 B.C.E) occurred near Regulus (literally “little king”), and thus would have had the astrological implication of a king arising: “As the brightest star in the constellation Leo, Regulus has been almost universally associated in ancient cultures with the concept of royalty and kingly power.”3And if (though no one can be certain) the magi were familiar with the Hebrew texts, they may even have associated the Lion with Judah, an association that may have told them where to seek the king.

I have frequent opportunities to look through telescopes, since there are four at my house currently (none of which is mine). I know I am supposed to be awed by the vastness of the universe and the beauty of the limitless stars, but my most frequent reaction is a deep awareness that I am far from understanding the tiny fuzzy tennis balls I see through the eyepiece. It humbles me to ponder on those wise individuals who felt compelled and guided by a light that even with magnification still can seem very faint to me.

Of course, our line of sight, our perspective, is an important factor in deriving meaning from the observation. Whatever the Star of Bethlehem may have been, we assume it was visible to all, but only the magi were able to use it to find the new priest-king. As T. S. Eliot wrote at the end of “Journey of the Magi,”

Were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.

I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different;

This Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.4

The magi relied on starlight to seek the Christ, and found what they had been seeking, thanks to a mindfulness that allowed that starlight to lead them.

These ideas were very much on my mind during the presentations of our recent speaker from Princeton Theological Seminary, Prof. Bo Karen Lee. Her presentations on “The Compassionate Christ” and “The Wisdom of Weakness” both emphasized the power of mindfulness in our scholarship, our teaching, our interactions with students and colleagues, and in our spiritual attempts to seek after Christ. She saw these all not as separate endeavors, nor ones with clear paths necessarily. Using as a metaphor the Japanese art/philosophy of kintsugi (the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold or silver), Prof. Lee suggested that power of mindfulness more often—and most effectively—lies in its power to reveal our own fragility. To employ mindfulness in my professional life was a new idea for me, and not one that comes naturally. But, like the heightened awareness of the fissures in the kintsugi pottery, mindfulness of our own fragility can reveal a reward of unimagined beauty. Like an uncertain star, it may lead onto journeys of great beauty and wonder.

This post was written by Marie Orton, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

[1] Buton, George W. “The Star of Bethlehem.” (Honolulu, Bernice Pl Bishop Museum Press, 1977) 3-5.

[2] Sinott, Roger W. “Computing the Star of Bethlehem.” Astronomical Computing, Sky and Telescope (Dec. 1986) 632-635.

[3] Burnham, Robert Jr. Burnham’s Celestial Handbook: An Observer’s Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System. 3 Vols. Vol. 2: Chamaeleon Through Orion. Revised and Enlarged Edition. (New York: Dover Publications, 1978) 1057.

[4] Eliot, T. S. “The Journey of the Magi.” Poetry Archive,

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  1. Beautiful, thoughtful post. Astronomical poetics and faith make a lovely combination here. Many thanks.

  2. […] and what they might mean (I myself discussed Halloween and creativity, Marie Orton remarked on Christmas and seeking in our vulnerability, and just two weeks ago, Garrett May spoke about New Years’ traditions and innovations). Yet […]

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