Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Nativity and the History of Science

We are members of a Moscow Patriarchal (Unrevised Julian Calendar) Church. But I was chrismated at an OCA parish, and subsequently met my wife, a Romanian. So we do sneak off to celebrate Revised Julian Calendar Christmas.

I was struck this morning that the Nativity Troparion implies knowledge that the sun is a star:
Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
For by it, those who worshiped the stars,
Were taught by a Star to adore You,
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know You, the Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You!
Having an undisciplined mind and a wandering spirit, I unfortunately spent a good deal of the next hour thinking about matters of the history of science. I wondered exactly when some person first proposed the concept that our sun is a star and, by implication, that stars are themselves suns with their own planets, etc.

It doesn't seem that such a belief is self-evident. After all, to a casual observer, stars and our sun behave quite differently. Our sun is big and bright and out only during the day and seems at least to travel around our planet. Stars are out at night and they're tiny and not bright enough to light up the night sky worth a damn. I mean, take the moon out of the equation and the night is dark!

So even though we now know that it's the Earth that revolves and that our sun is just a star really close to us, we shouldn't think the ancients to have been idiots for not automatically knowing these things.

But that brings us to the question, when was this idea first proposed? I was able to rally and turn my mind to matters spiritual in nature after I resolved to research the issue once I got home.

Now, the Nativity Troparion could have been in its present form as early as the 6th or 7th century AD. But it turns out that the idea of our sun as a close-up star was proposed long before that by the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (ca. 500 BC - 400 BC). The idea was also included in the first known assertion of a heliocentric solar system, by Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC - 230 BC).

Interestingly, despite the fact that our sun as a star is implied by the Nativity Troparion, the idea was condemned by Ecclesiastical Authorities, and was listed alongside some actual heresies for which Giordano Bruno, a 16th century AD friar and astronomer, was burned at the stake. (The man apparently actually espoused pantheism, making it unlikely that his cosmological views would have been sufficient to lead to his execution.)

It is important to remember that not just the Roman Church condemned Bruno and Copernicus. Martin Luther also condemned the heliocentric view as anti-biblical.

At any rate, today we imitate those Wise Men from of old who followed a star to another star, this one very close up, the Sun of Righteousness. And if God's love ever seemed as distant and cold as a star, now in the Incarnate Christ it is as close and warm as the Sun.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

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