When I got home from work Sunday night, Ginger and I took our two Schnauzers, Lola and Ella, for a walk around the neighborhood. We have to go late because Lola is not much of a people person and does better on dark and quiet streets. More nights than not, I sing a little Patsy Cline as we head out: “I’m going walkin’ after midnight” The four of us have a rather settled path, walking down to the end of our street (past Harper Lee’s house – yes, there really is a kid on our street named Harper Lee), turning in front of the North Carolina School for Science and Math, then back down Ninth Street, past the house where I think Boo Radley lives and then the fire station, then left on Englewood, and left again on Iredell and back home. As we passed Boo’s house, Ginger said, “Look,” and there was Orion, hunting over the rooftops.
I won’t even claim to be an amateur astronomer, but I can recognize a couple of constellations. I can find Cassiopeia (thanks to two John Cusak movies, The Sure Thing, first, and then Serendipity), and I know Orion, the Hunter. Almost two decades in New England meant winter was coming when he began to appear in the night sky, his belt shining through even the city lights. This morning, in my pre-kitchen reading, Chet Raymo, a real astronomer, gave me more to ponder:
Giant Orion: boaster, beast-slayer, storm-bringer. Muscle-bulging constellation of the lights. No other part of the night sky visible to northern observers contains more brilliant stars. Here is diamond Rigel, the giant’s forward foot, and ruby Betelgeuse, in the shoulder of the raised arm. Here are glittering Saiph and Bellatrix, the other foot and other shoulder, and Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, the white pearls of the hunter’s belt. Bellatrix is the closest of these stars, but at 470 light-years away it is a hundred times more distant than our nearest stellar neighbors. Saiph is 2000 light-years away. These are the giants of the Galaxy, stars ten thousand times brighter than our sun, the largest and most intrinsically luminous stars of the night. (14)
I was taught to look at the stars that we call Orion as a group gathered together in wonder and imagination. I have learned that what I see is far from cohesive. The light I saw coming from Saiph Sunday night was more than fifteen hundred light years older than that coming from Bellatrix, even though I took it all in at once. Betelgeuse is five hundred light years away; Raymo says an “average-sized star” like our sun would not even be visible to the eye from that distance. (Just think of the light we are not seeing as we gaze into the night sky.) He goes into more detail about the information astronomers are learning from new telescope images that
have only recently arrived on our doorstep to tell us that Betelgeuse is a distended giant star, a sphere of hydrogen and helium 400 million miles in deameter, swelling with a violence that consumes planets and lights up dusky corners of the Galaxy. Its surface roils like a sea in a storm, and a froth of fire is flung ten million miles into space. In Earth’s sky this monstrous object is reduced to a point of light in Orion’s shoulder. The stars are good at hiding their true natures. They have a trick up their sleeve, and that trick is distance. (16-17)
from a distance the earth looks blue and green
and the snow-capped mountains white
It’s the next verse that gets me, however.
from a distance we are instruments
marching in a common band
playing songs of home, playing songs of peace
they’re the songs of every man
And then she sings,
God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance
The truth at the heart of this season speaks otherwise. The Love as old and bright as the most ancient of stars is racing across galaxies to find us. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah said, and John followed, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” Distance is not the trick in the Incarnation, nor is the Coming Child something Other than the true nature of God. The trick is beyond the distance, in the drawing near. The Light and Love of God are landing among us, not with meteoric force, but quietly and subversively, in a manger, in the darkness on the edge of town.
“You shall call him ‘Emmanuel,’” said the Angel, “which means, ‘God With Us.’”
Scout’s fear disappeared when Boo Radley got close enough to save her life and she saw him, as we say, in new light. The starshine from Saiph, Orion’s back foot, that found us on the sidewalk Sunday night was old light as old as Christmas itself, having traveled over two millennia to find us. And in that light, Patsy Cline sounds like she’s singing an Advent hymn of her own:
I go out walkin’
out in the starlight
just hoping you may be
searching for me
Even Lola knows you have to go out in the dark if you want to see the stars.