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Matariki: An Invitation to Awe

My family and I recently hosted a short-term exchange student, a 15-year-old Japanese boy who lives a stone’s throw from Tokyo Disneyland. Ruka had a blast seeing the decidedly un-metropolitan sights of the central Waikato: a dairy farm, the Waitomo Caves, and Countdown (yes, seriously). But his absolute highlight? Stargazing.

After dinner, we trekked up Maungakawa, away from the not-exactly-bright lights of Cambridge, to get an unsullied look at the nightsky. Ruka had never seen anything like it. On a typical Tokyo night, he can make out three stars at most. On this particular cloudless night, a galaxy of stars was on full display in all their twinkling glory. He tried video-chatting (unsuccessfully, no thanks to the patchy reception) his mother to share the experience with her. He was utterly awestruck.

As we head into this Matariki season and tangata whenua, along with increasing numbers of tauiwi, cast their gazes skyward at the eponymous constellation, known in te reo Pākehā as Pleiades, I’m reminded of the scriptural motif of God-consciousness inspired by stargazing. In Psalm 19:1–3, David writes:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.

There is a type of knowledge, perhaps residing more in marrow than in mind, that stems from contemplating the stars and what their wordless speech says about the one who made them. It’s a knowledge borne of feeling, namely awe.

Awe, according to psychologists, is the archetypal emotional response to jaw-dropping vastness, whether physical or conceptual. And the nightsky is nothing if not vast: the closest star, Alpha Centauri, is four light years away. The southern-most star in the Southern Cross is 321 light years away. Matariki (Alcyone), 440 light years. Look at Alnitak in Orion’s Belt and you’re seeing light that left its stellar origin 1,260 years ago—a couple of decades before the first Viking raid on England. Whoa.

That emotional response, awe, has an effect on us. Writing in the early twentieth century, theologian Rudolf Otto described how encounters with the “numinous”, which elicit awe or awe-like emotion, imbue us with “creature feeling”. Again, David gives us a glimpse of what creature feeling looks like in Psalm 8:3–4:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

Taking the time to look up from the humdrum of ordinary existence to the splendour of the nightsky puts things in perspective. We catch a glimpse of the magnitude of the creator and the finitude of us creatures. We need those bouts of creature feeling to remind us to remove ourselves from the centre of our own personal universe and reorient ourselves around God.

For Māori, Matariki is a time to take stock and make plans. As you look to the heavens and sense the cosmic magnitude of the story God is authoring, consider: What plans do you need to make in order to take up your role within it? Perhaps this is the time for you, or somebody you know, to take the plunge into theological study at Pathways—new students can begin in Semester 2 (late July).

Regardless, on some clear night in the coming days, take a moment to heed the advice of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!

    O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!

    The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!


Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then! bid then! – What? – Prayer, patience, alms, vows.

And as we feel the awe of these “fire-folk”, may we also utter a prayer of delight and gratitude to the maker of them all.

Richard Goodwin

Academic Director of Teaching & Learning


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