World

Conjunction

The Most Exciting Thing in All My Life

January 13, 2021 by

I started to pick up my pencil and write as quickly as I could, “P.S. Today I saw a black fox.” But I didn’t. This was the most exciting thing that had happened to me, and “P.S. Today I saw a black fox” made it nothing. “So what else is happening?” Petie Burkis would probably write back. I folded my letter, put it in an envelope, and sat there. (Betsy Byars, The Midnight Fox)

I found this quote in a book that my children grew up on. I signed it out of the school library before writing this post because I hoped it could help me express some thoughts that have been swirling around in my head since I stared into the eyepiece of a big telescope. New thoughts that sprang to life when the ring around Saturn almost touched the four moons of Jupiter with its two burgundy cloud-bands running over its middle.

So I started to type “P.S. Today I saw Jupiter and Saturn inside an eighteen-millimeter telescope eyepiece.” This was the most exciting thing that had happened to me, and sure enough “P.S. Today I saw Jupiter and Saturn inside an eighteen-millimeter telescope eyepiece” made it nothing. “So what else is happening?”

I had to search further, to find the part in the book where the young narrator imagines something so new, that at the moment it is introduced to the whole world there is complete silence followed by the sound of awe.

As it turned out, Betsy Byars penned a much more down-to-earth story than the lofty one I remembered. In it, the narrator is waiting for the fox by the edge of a farmland forest. He sees the golden light of sunset shining through water droplets on lush green meadow grasses, and in a reverie, he imagines himself discovering a ball with a brand new color. This color is shown on TV to a worldwide audience, and he imagines:

… And I bring forth the new color, and all around the world a silence would occur. The only silence that had ever fallen upon the whole world at one time. Eskimos would pause with pieces of dried fish halfway to their mouths; Russians who had run in from the cold would stop beating the snow from their arms; fishermen would leave their nets untended. And then, together, all at once, everyone in the world would say, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.”

In 2020 the whole world seemed to be waiting for the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. For me, the days leading up to the twenty-first of December were like a child waiting for the “brandest newest” thing to happen in the whole universe! (I’m sixty-five.) But, here in England, most evenings found us looking up at thick, grey, cloudy skies. Added to that, there was the trouble with the telescope on the hill. The battery powering the clock drive had quit. To be sure, this 1970s Newtonian barrel telescope had seen better days. Since 2008, it has been my hobby to maintain it. I ended up calling it “The Forgiveness Project.” But that is scope for another article.

JMEmbed1The conjunction next to the sickle moon, December 17, 2020 at Beech Grove community in Kent, United Kingdom. Photo by John Menz.

As the planets approached each other on the seventeenth of December, I invited school children and their teachers to look at Saturn and Jupiter together in the low-power, wide-field-view eyepiece. When my friend, a high school science teacher, remarked, “This old geezer is seriously out of alignment,” I cringed inside. The young students were full of exuberant enthusiasm. But where was the “hushed awesomeness” that should be surrounding this once-in-400-years celestial event?

The weather over Kent County, England, actually gave us a chance of seeing the great conjunction in the evening of the twentieth of December. It rained off and on all day. I spent most of this Sunday outdoors beside the “old geezer.” The telescope is protected from the elements by a heavy vinyl tarp. I removed and replaced the tarp three times in the hours that I tinkered with the mirrors and polished the dusty glass surfaces.

The sky was washed crystal clear as the sun set, and it seemed to me that the wind blew across the rain-soaked landscape with gentle intent. Jupiter’s light appeared as a faint white dot in the rust-golden glow above the southwestern horizon. I held my breath. I located Jupiter in the telescope’s finder. As I peered into the eyepiece both planets came into focus at once. Against the pale blue background it was still too bright to see their moons. As the dusk-dark blanket of night rolled out, and the conjunction moved slowly toward the horizon, the eyepiece revealed the four bright moons of Jupiter, and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan!

A few neighbors came by to have a peek at the planets; one comment kept repeating itself: “I see five moons of Jupiter, its bands, and Saturn’s ring and its moon.” After the last neighbor had a good look, I decided to check out those “five” moons of Jupiter. (There are only four Jovian moons big enough to be seen from our telescope.) When first seen as the night deepened, I had counted one moon on Jupiter’s left and three on its right. But sure enough, now there were two on the left and three on the right. The farthest one to the right was slightly out of line with the others – in fact it was a bright star that had joined this “line of sight” phenomena as we earthbound viewers gazed heavenward. As I placed the vinyl cover on the telescope for the last time that day, a joy filled me that hushed even the complaints of my aching back.

The thick blanket of clouds returned and stayed. But I knew that an opening had been made in that cloud cover on the evening of the twentieth – an opening that let the light of two planets break through to my heart. There was more than light in this breakthrough. I could hear clearly the very faint sound of a new song.

“. . . in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye . . .the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52).

It will not be a recognizable trumpet blast to awaken the dead, of that I am sure. It will be a new sound; a new sound that will surround the entire world. Every living soul on earth will pause in the great silence that follows the new sound.

And their response will be “Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.”

JMEmbed2P.S. Our daughter, Kateri Menz, was witness to the Christmas Star over Bethlehem on the evening of December 21, 2020. Here she is on the roof of Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, with the view toward Bethlehem. Photo by Cindy Lawson.

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About the author

John Henry Menz

John Henry Menz

John is an amateur astronomer, photographer, and gardener who is currently living in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England...

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