Argo Navis: Lessons from Astronomy on Being the Church

The constellation Argo Navis as drawn by Hevelius (Image from Wikipedia)

The constellation Argo Navis as drawn by Hevelius (Image from Wikipedia)

I love the stars. Not only is the canvas of the starry heavens beautiful and awe-inspiring, I find the whole subject fascinating, too. The moon, the planets, the stars themselves, the nebulae and comets and galaxies… Wonderful. In the original sense of “provoking wonder”.
Combine this with a love of Greek mythology from my pre-teenage years and an interest in symbology and meaning, and you get this sort of post. An examination of the symbolic meanings of a constellation as a metaphor for Biblical truth.
Before I get going, I should probably say that this is not an attempt to baptise or Christianise the practice of astrology. As far as I’m concerned, horoscopes are a load of tosh unfit for consumption by followers of Jesus.
But the fact that some people try to seek direction and meaning for their lives in the positions of the stars and planets does not stop us as believers from learning something from the pictures we have drawn in the sky.
So I’m going to look at the constellation Argo Navis as a metaphor for being the Church. In mediæval times the Church was often metaphorically referred to as a ship. This constellation seems an apt metaphor, if a bit of an unusual one.
Don’t bother to look up Argo Navis in a modern star atlas, because you won’t find it under that name. In the 1700s this huge, somewhat unwieldy constellation was broken up into parts, and now exists as Carina, the Keel, Puppis, the Stern, Vela, the Sails and Pyxis, the rather anachronistic Ship’s Compass. Argo Navis is the original name of the constellation. It has been recognised as a constellation since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, and depicts the Ship Argo that Jason and his Argonauts sailed in.
Ok, now you’re just being weird. Jason and the Argonauts as a metaphor for church life? Bear with me.
The Argonauts were the Greek mythological equivalent of the Avengers superhero team. Including among their number Hercules, Theseus, Atalanta and Orpheus, the Argonauts were Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for the mythological age: each one a powerful hero in their own right, but under Jason’s leadership pooling their abilities for the sake of their combined mission to win the Golden Fleece and in doing so, win Jason a kingdom. Hercules was the strongman. Theseus was the brains of the group. Atalanta, the celebrated female warrior, was famed for her running speed. Orpheus had his lyre. Jason doesn’t seem to have had much in the way of special abilities or giftedness, but he was the leader, the one they’d all follow. Given the general contentiousness of the Greek mythological world, this in itself is a remarkable ability.
It may not be the usual picture of church, but I can see truth here. A band of people on a mission concerning a kingdom, each with their own special gift, combined in a way that makes a greater whole.
Their ship, the Argo, which is depicted in the constellation, was fashioned from the wood of a special tree in which a god had manifested themselves. And after the ship was fashioned, it would occasionally speak to the crew to direct and counsel them. Without reading too much into it, if we look at it in the right way we can see echoes of another Tree in which the God manifested Himself in the Person of His Son. The wood of the tree is fashioned into a ship, and the band of heroes travel together in it. Again, you don’t want to read too much into it, but this to me is suggestive of all of the “in Christ” teachings of St. Paul’s letters, concerning our spiritual position. A pilgrim people, on a journey, travelling together and made one in Christ, whose title Immanuel is a sign of God Made Manifest, living as one of us. A God who still speaks to us today to direct and counsel us through the grace given to us at the Tree.
In addition, each of us has some spiritual gift, some deposit of the grace of God. Not all of us are Hercules. Not all of us are Theseus. God has combined us in His Church with gifts differing, so that all may benefit. As it is written: “Now to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Cor12:7)
Jason’s name, interestingly enough, means “Healer”; one of the attributes of Jesus. I’m not claiming the pagan hero Jason as a type of Christ, but within the metaphor we are constructing it is apt. The One we all follow is a Healer.
Those who would become the Argonauts came to Jason because of his mission. It was noised abroad that there was a great quest requiring the bravest, the strongest, the swiftest, the most cunning, to go into dangers known and unknown, risking their very lives. And they flocked to him. Like Jason’s, Jesus’ invitation is to a mission, a great quest, braving dangers known and unknown, possibly risking our very lives. A far cry from the “come to Jesus and get your needs met” we sometimes want to make it. Yes, Jesus will meet all of your needs. But His calling is to a mission. It will require your life. Far better that you get that straight at the outset.
The constellation that represents the Ship Argo is huge. From the latitudes of Greece and the Mediterranean, it “sails” across the sky just above the southern horizon, following the more modern constellation Columba, the Dove. If we are going to reinterpret the Ship as the Church, this is immediately suggestive of the corporate leading of the Holy Spirit, because we really aren’t in this alone. God guides us corporately as a people as well as individually as people. Also, somewhat ironically, due to the visual effects of the Earth’s orbit on the apparent positions of the constellations, the ship appears to be sailing backwards.
It’s really tempting to make some snarky comment about the appropriateness of this. After all, we’ve all known churches whose entire focus is on where they’ve been and the way they did church thirty, sixty or a hundred years ago. But I won’t. Instead, I want to use this to talk a little about faith. Because so often we go through situations blind. We can’t see the way ahead. It looks to our human reason as if we should be going an entirely different way. But the Dove is going that way, and we are following, though we do so back-to-front and sight unseen. It certainly sounds like what I know of faith.
The constellational ship is moved by sails (riding some kind of cosmic wind, one presumes). Again, a fitting metaphor for the life of faith, empowered and driven along by the wind of the Spirit. It’s tempting to try to find some analogy for the other three modern constellations as well, but I think this would be stretching the metaphor too far.
The original constellation of Argo Navis was broken up because it was so big it was unwieldy for astronomers. It covered such a big area of sky that finding anything in it was too great a challenge. But it forms a single picture. In astronomy, the bright stars of a constellation are given Greek letter designations in order of brightness; the brightest star in the constellation Taurus is Alpha Tauri, more commonly known by its name Aldebaran. The bright stars of the modern constellations Vela, Carina, Pyxis and Puppis are designated not according to their order of brightness in these three constellations, but in their order of brightness in the original constellation Argo Navis. The star Canopus, named after Menelaus’s pilot from the Trojan wars, is Alpha Carinae. Beta Carinae is named Miaplacidus, meaning “calm waters”. But the Gamma star is in Vela: Gamma Velorum, sometimes known as Regor. There is no Alpha Velorum or Alpha Puppis.
In a similar way, the Church is bigger than we sometimes think. Particularly in America, we have a tendency to act as if our individual local church or our particular denomination comprises the entirety of the Church. But it isn’t. Our denomination is just a part of a greater whole, and we don’t have all of the “bright stars” of doctrine, truth or practice. Just as with the Argonauts themselves, gifts differing but united in a single mission, we need each other to get the whole picture. Because in the end, there’s really only one Church.
Undoubtedly we should not take this analogy too far or try to make too much of it. There are many differences, not least in the object of our mission. We follow Jesus not for a physical object, not even a Golden Fleece, but for the redemption of the world He loves.  To participate with Him in bringing His people back.
Still, it’s an interesting image, don’t you think?

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