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Follow That Star? No Thanks

Hazel Marshall

You have to wonder what went through the minds of the three wise men when they decided to follow the star. Whose idea was it? Which one of the three first suggested that they follow it, or did they all meet up on the way? How did they explain it to their loved ones? ‘There’s this star, you see, and if I follow it I will find the Messiah.’ There must have been a bit of nudging and laughing down the local tavern the night they left. But then again, maybe not. They were the ‘three wise men’ after all. Maybe they had a point. Maybe like all the generations since they were searching for something that needed to be found.

This all came into my mind on Christmas Eve 2000 as I stood with my father, his wife, my sister and her partner (one of the central tenets of modern family life is that you can no longer sum up your nearest and dearest in just the one word) trying to spot the International Space Station. Christmas Eve was supposed to be the one night that we would actually be able to see the sparkling behemoth wing its way across the skies. The conversation went something like this:

‘That’s it. Look. Over there.’
‘No, that’s Venus.’
‘It can’t be. It’s moving.’
‘No it’s not. You are.’
‘Oh. Well, what about that one then? That’s definitely moving.’
‘That’s because it’s an aeroplane.’

The problem was, of course, that none of us knew exactly what we were meant to be looking for. We knew it would be the size of a large star and that it would take around five minutes to make its way across the skies. But we had real problems trying to distinguish it from the other objects in the night sky - aeroplanes, stars, planets. Any one of them could have been the space station. And why did we want to see it anyway? What did it mean to us?
In addition to being wise, those three men had one other advantage over us. They knew what they were following and they had a good idea of what they would find at the other end. And maybe that’s why the star that they followed signalled the beginning not only of a new millennia but a whole new calendar (even if they didn’t know it at the time). That star meant something to them in the same way that the space station means nothing to us.
What would happen if we followed the new star? Would we all find our own Baby Jesus? Would we even recognise him? Laying aside the fact that if we found a woman lying in a stable with a baby in a manger being ogled by a donkey, some sheep with their attendant shepherds and three men clutching useless gifts we would call social services, would we be able to recognise what it was that we had found?

What is salvation today? Jesus was born into a time of war and strife and he preached peace. (Let’s not even begin to discuss what his followers have preached ever since). Is that still the message that we are searching for today? Violence, whether on a global or a personal level is still one of the biggest problems in the world today. And so what do we do? Spend millions to send a piece of metal out of the world? And let’s not kid ourselves that our world leaders wouldn’t love to play a gigantic game of Star Wars. To me, the space station is about promoting more competition and aggression between nations and even, ultimately, with what might be further out there, in the wide space beyond.

I’m all for trying to find new frontiers,to extend our understanding of what is around and above us. But I also think that the whole point of finding out more is not just to find it but to actually use it for the betterment of humankind. Science and new technology is booming. We can clone sheep, communicate with people on the other side of the world within seconds and soon we may even visit Mars. But we still can’t communicate with each other and we still haven’t found a way to prevent the human misery of countless millions.

I thought that it was a remarkable coincidence that our only chance to see the space station in 2000 was on Christmas Eve. Is the space machine our new ‘Christmas star’? And if so, will it bring us a new way of life? It’s known as the International Space Station but has it brought a new era of internationalism? Isn’t it ironic that at the same time as searching for the new star, the town over which the original one hung 2000 years ago was being bombed and closed off to all travellers? Wise or not, if those three men had tried to enter Bethlehem today and had had the wrong coloured licence plates then they would have been refused access.

Christmas is always my reflective time and this year was no exception. Given that I was about to undertake a large career change I was possibly even more reflective than usual. And since the film of the same name, we have all thought that the year 2001 will be about technology and space travel, it seemed particularly apt that the star we were all searching for this Christmas was a false star. Because the thing is that we don’t know what we want any more. We are no longer searching for salvation although we would love to find some meaning.

Needless to say, we never did see the space station.

© Hazel Marshall 2001

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