Lord of the Starfields

There’s a lot that’s strange about the story of the visit of the Magi. Not least of these for skeptical Christians is that it’s a story in which astrology works: The Magi trusted a portent in the skies of a royal baby in Judea and their faith in their craft was rewarded — even if it wasn’t what they were expecting. So, this seems like a natural time in my series on My Year of Magical Thinking to think about how I’ve come to understand astrology in relationship to my Christian faith.

On this front, I can sympathize with the Magi. Their astrological study led them to be confronted with something true in a foreign faith in a foreign land. And my own desire to find what is of God no matter where it may be (along with the plain sense of the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew!) led me this year to be confronted with something true in astrology, a world I’d long dismissed as vapid at best and deceitful at worst.

This experience has made me think about some of the ancient Jewish and Christian imagery surrounding astrology. Archaeologists have discovered synagogues with elaborate mosaic floors showing the signs of the zodiac overturned. A Christian version of this motif featured the icon of Christ Pantokrator (“Ruler of All Things”) over and above the signs of the zodiac. I used to interpret these images as a way of depicting that astrology was powerless and empty, but, upon further reflection, I don’t think that’s true.

Instead of being powerless, I think the signs of the zodiac represent what the early Christian tradition called “the Principalities and Powers,” the “rulers of this world” that shape our lives and experiences. This works if one thinks of them as actual spiritual beings with wills of their own (as it seems the ancients largely did), or if one thinks of them as impersonal social forces. (One doesn’t need to believe in Mammon as a god to see how powerful lust for money is a governing force in the world! Or, we don’t need to personify the scapegoat mechanism to see it spread and play out time and time again in human relationships, from the dynamics of children’s friend groups to the vilification of Jewish people that led to the Holocaust.)

Whatever we may believe about these powers or energies, however we may interpret them, I think it’s disingenuous to say they they don’t exist or don’t have power. In the Christian imagination, however, these powers are relativized in Christ: The way of freedom from the principalities, powers, fates, and karmic cycles of the world and our lives is the way of Jesus.

On the surface, this may sound condescending, but in my experience over the past year, astrologers talk about their craft in surprisingly similar terms: Astrology is a language for articulating what is happening in the world and how the world works, but it’s up to us to work with those energies constructively so we don’t end up crushed by the insidious fatalism of “what is.” The world’s religious traditions represent different understandings of how we might be freed from this never-ending cycle. For Judaism it is Torah-keeping. For Buddhism it’s the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. For Christianity it is dying to the world and its ways and being reborn in Christ, who is the incarnation of God’s eternal Wisdom, Word, and Power.

I find this approach helpful because not only does it frame astrology (whatever its actual use — I’m still very much on the fence about it) within a Christian worldview, but it also provides a way of engaging with astrology healthily. As I’ll discuss in a future post, my natal chart is eerily accurate, so much that at first glance I felt disempowered by it. It actually made me wonder if so much of my life and the things I struggle with were simply fated. But it isn’t fate. The chart is simply a map of my life and its challenges, the star-chart that helps situate me in the sea I have to navigate. An astrological forecast is simply about what weather I might expect as I travel. But I choose the destination and God fills my sails to get me where I’m going, no matter how rough the sea or stormy the weather. For Christ is Lord of the seas and starfields alike.

I’m going to leave these reflections with Bruce Cockburn’s words that inspired the title of this post:

Lord of the starfields
Ancient of Days
Universe Maker
Here’s a song in your praise
Wings of the storm cloud
Beginning and end
You make my heart leap
Like a banner in the wind

O love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

Lord of the starfields
Sower of life,
Heaven and earth are
Full of your light
Voice of the nova
Smile of the dew
All of our yearning
Only comes home to you

O love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

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