In 1833, a little after 3:00 am on a clear, cold night in Virginia, Samuel Rogers was awakened strangely. As he wrote later: “I heard one of the children cry out, in a voice expressive of alarm: ‘Come to the door, father, the world is surely coming to an end.’ Another exclaimed: ‘See! The whole heavens are on fire! All the stars are falling!’ These cries brought us all into the open yard, to gaze upon the grandest and most beautiful scene my eyes have ever beheld. It did appear as if every star had left its moorings, and was drifting rapidly in a westerly direction, leaving behind a track of light which remained visible for several seconds. . . No tome in a thousand could give any rational account of this wonderful phenomenon; so it will not appear strange that there was widespread alarm at this ‘star-shooting,’ so called. Some really thought that the Judgment Day was at hand, and they fell on their knees in penitence, confessing all the sins of their past lives, and calling upon God to have mercy. On our journey we heard little talked of but the ‘falling of the stars.’”
This spectacular show was eventually discovered to be the Leonid meteor shower, a regular occurrence whenever our planet’s orbit takes us through the tail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. About every 30 years, the meteor shower becomes a meteor storm, as it did in 1833, with perhaps as many as 2000 meteors per hour visible in the night sky. Some observers from that year claimed the sky was so bright that it seemed dawn had come in the middle of the night.
In Samuel Rogers’s account, I find it interesting that many people’s first reaction was to turn to God. An unexplainable phenomenon in the pre-scientific age provoked fear and led to pleas for divine mercy. No such thing happens when we experience the Leonid meteor shower today. We know the scientifically explainable reason for the display. There is no need to fear, because there is a rational explanation for what we are seeing.
And yet, even knowing what causes it, those who see a meteor shower may find themselves gasping in wonder at the sight. It happens to me every time I see a shooting star. My first thought is not that this is simply a piece of dust or rock burning up in the atmosphere, but that this is another display of beauty in the vast universe of which we are such a small part, another reminder of God’s power and creativity. I don’t know how I would have responded to the meteor shower of 1833, but when I am lucky enough to see one, I hope that amid my gasps of wonder will be a prayer of thanks to the One who created the phenomenon of falling stars and created me.
God our Creator, thank you for the vast and wonderful universe you have made. So often we take its wonders for granted. Forgive us when we fail to be grateful for the beauty you intended to point us to you. Open our eyes as we look to the heavens and all around us, for signs of you are everywhere. Amen.-- Chaplain Stacy N. Sergent