I am sure that I am not alone in the sense of relief that the solstice has finally arrived. Light will gradually begin to increase as the northern hemisphere slowly wobbles back toward the sun. And if I didn’t have another final exam to administer a little later this morning I would’ve stayed up to see the total lunar eclipse last night. Conditions were perfect, if cold, for viewing the event in New Jersey. NASA states that the last time a full lunar eclipse occurred on the winter solstice was in 1638. Those of us who survived to see last night’s events, whether with our eyes on the skies or on the Internet, have witnessed a rare astronomical coincidence. So rare, I’m sure, that some people have taken it as a sign.
This is the season for signs in the sky. The Gospel of Matthew narrates how Zoroastrian astrologers followed a star to Bethlehem. Over the years many astronomers have puzzled over what this anomaly might have been. (They might benefit from reading a little mythology now and again.) While still in Wisconsin my family went to see a University of Wisconsin planetarium show on the subject, and these family-fun science-and-religion public-relations events are anything but rare. It is in the spirit of the season.
Ancient civilizations bestowed upon us the gift of looking for signs in the sky. In antiquity’s three-tiered universe, the gods literally lived “up there,” so portentous occurrences above our heads were a bellwether of divine intention. Religious specialists had to be able to interpret the omens in the air. That fascination has remained with humanity ever since, no matter how rational we’ve become. While driving home in the relatively developed region of New Brunswick a few weeks ago, I saw a meteor. This was remarkable because the light pollution of multiple streetlights along with the volume of raging traffic headlights was intense. My eyes were glued to the taillights before me when it fell. It felt like an epiphany – it was the brightest meteor I’d ever seen, and over the years I suppose I’ve seen my fair share. It left me with the feeling that something momentous had occurred, an emotion that persisted for a few days. No wonder ancient astronomers found the night sky so impressive. The only negative aspect of the lengthening of the days is the corresponding shortening of the nights.