The Grammar of the Stars

Want to put in practice some of the ideas Wesley Callihan talked about yesterday on Leigh!@Lunch?  (Listen to the archive now.)  You’ll need just a few things: a pair of open eyes, a blanket to keep off the dew, and a patch of grass with a view of the stars. This week’s “Sky at a Glance” from Sky and Telescope tells you some of what you might expect to see this weekend:

Thursday, March 29

  • This is the time of year when the dim Little Dipper juts to the right from Polaris (its handle-end) during evening hours. The much brighter Big Dipper curls over high above it, “dumping water” into it.
  • This is also the time of year when Orion, declining in the southwest after dark, displays his three-star Belt more or less horizontally.

Friday, March 30

  • First-quarter Moon (exact at 3:41 p.m. EDT). The Moon shines in the legs of Gemini, below Pollux and Castor and high above sinking Betelgeuse.

Saturday, March 31

  • The Moon shines high in the southwest this evening. It forms a gently curving line (as seen from North America) with Pollux and Castor to its upper right and Procyon below it.

Do you feel like you’re reading a foreign language right now? (What’s Procyon? Where is Betelgeuse? Why don’t I know these things?!)  Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Like any other subject, astronomy has its own grammar to learn.  We can appreciate the beauty of the night sky without knowing the names of the constellations, but studying astronomy gives us a language with which to discuss what we see. We fall in love with the creation we can name. Otherwise, it just seems ordinary. 

To help you get started, Sky and Telescope has a free, downloadable guide called Getting Started in Astronomy.  (Check out page 3 for a practical application of the Greek alphabet you might have learned with your Classical Conversations community!)

Using the charts in this guide, you will begin to see and recognize individual stars and constellations. Before you know it, you’ll be able to say to your family, “Isn’t Gemini beautiful tonight? Look at that plane flying right between Castor and Pollux!”

The language of the stars is not just part of ancient Greek culture, however, and it is not just trivial knowledge.  Throughout Scripture, the heavens point to the Lord’s plans and His glory. He used the stars to promise Abram that he would father a great nation (Genesis 15); the prophets used heavenly bodies to illustrate their messages; the Magi were drawn to the birth of Jesus by following a star (Matthew 2)*; and the book of Revelation is full of astronomical signs and wonders.

Here’s the catch: In order to understand how “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19), we have to be willing to look up.


He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.

–Psalm 147: 4-5


*Food for thought: The Star of Bethlehem (DVD) follows lawyer Rick Larson’s journey to understand what the Star of Bethlehem meant to a culture based on reading the stars.

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