Starry Night

By James B. Simpson

Once you have seen the stars, the darkness is not so fearful.

The stars shined in their watches and rejoiced. When he calls them, they say, “Here we be”; and so with cheerfulness they showed light unto him that made them. Baruch 3:34-35.

 There’s an extravagant, romantic idea that, in creating the heavens, God flung out the stars recklessly and generously across the sky’s black velvet. Indeed, the stars do shine brightly, not only in the history of the heavens, but also in the pages of great literature and poetry. Shakespeare, for one, did not ignore the sweeping symbolism of stars and it was to one of his great plays that Robert Kennedy turned for a memorable tribute to his brother, the martyred president:

When he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars.

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night,

And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

Another poet, the 19th century’s William Wordsworth, wrote these lines:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we com

From God, who is our home.”

Those who grew up in the small towns of this vast land, on its plains and in the hill country, spent many an evening on a wide front porch or out in the yard, watching the stars. In the pre-television era, it was a pleasant occupation of heart and mind and imagination to get a comfortably cricked neck by studying the stars.

Parents took time to point out the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, and suggestions of the Southern Cross. Even today when we pause to look up at the stars (not often enough), we are again captivated with the wonderment of what may be our destiny under the stars — the stars that have watched for countless ages: the stars that form the canopy under which we play out our life’s little drama: the stars that will still be shining when we are gone.

The author Richard Wright, whose book Black Boy made him an eloquent spokesman for his people, was thinking along the same lines — the stars as witnesses — when he wrote of his longing for a place where people might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered “here beneath the stars.”

It was the same for Jesus, whose place of birth we recall in a well-loved carol,

“Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,

The silent stars go by.”

For many of us, the first memory of a star we could hold in our hands is the garish tinseled one that went atop the family Christmas tree. It was likely to be beloved, faded, and bent from so many little hands passing it around and then leaning precariously to place it at the peak of the tree.

I wonder what happened to the cheap but cherished star that was so much a part of my early Yuletide. After everyone had left home, the lady of the house settled for a much smaller tree in the parlor (she called it a no-trouble tree) the kind she had wanted for ages. I suspect that the star lay forgotten at the bottom of a box of dusty decorations stored in that cavernous area of jumble beneath the window seat in the big front hall. Its eventual fate was to go out with the trash, perhaps hanging precariously to a sack of castoffs.

What a post-Christmas program cover that picture would make! That discarded star — greatly loved even if it was “made in Japan” — more than likely went up in smoke in a great backyard bonfire that consumed the oddments of a family’s 60 years of living in one house.

In our high school years, another star came into view: the tiny gold-incised star on the sorority pins that perched on the Sloppy Joe sweaters of the most attractive girls. One snoopy but imaginative boy guessed that in the secret ritual of Delta Alpha Delta the five points of the star stood for the five founders of the secret society.

“Don’t say that!” his girlfriend pleaded, disclosing more than she realized, “They’ll say I told you!”

There have been other stars through the years, punctuating the swift passage of a lifetime. Just over two decades ago this month on a visit to Russia, my initial view of Moscow was that of a great, garish red star perched atop one of the towers of the Kremlin. I saw it through the gray fog of an early winter’s twilight, damply enfolding the brooding, mysterious capital of the Soviets. I knew instantly that it was a badly scaled, cheap, latter day addition to the noble architecture of that medieval fortress.

On another visit to Moscow, in 1977, I again saw the big red star on the Kremlin towers. It twirls, I thought, like the Texaco star on midwestern gas stations half a world away. “The star was added in 1937 to mark the 25th anniversary of the glorious revolution” our guide explained. “Its points symbolize the five continents of the earth to which Communism will spread.”

“And,” she added, “it is made of shards of red glass.” Shards of glass! The image was one of sharp, cutting edges, and for the first time I felt I had met a fat and hostile star.

The young guide had never heard of a conversation that took place years before she was born. Lenin told the Russian people that many of the church towers were going to be pulled down so that they “wouldn’t be reminded of their old beliefs.”

“Ah, yes,” said one of the peasants, “but you can’t help leaving us the stars!”

Friendly stars? Unfriendly ones? Stars of sentiment and superstition? We have to remind ourselves that stars had different meanings for different people in different times.

Undoubtedly the stars had a practical use for a Christopher Columbus or a John Glenn — or even one of the first great women aviators, Jacqueline Cochran. “I might have been born in a novel,” she wrote, “but I determined to travel with the wind and the stars.”

Yes, the stars have been fixed points of aspiration and stability in many lives. Everything else changes, even the Prayer Book, but the stars remain the same. Amid the galaxies, the sun scorches our skin and blinds our eyes. The moon waxes mysterious. But the stars have a gentle, twinkling friendliness that speak of our highest goals and ambitions. As a song of World War II put it, “Have a little faith and hope in what tomorrow brings, you’ll reach a star because there are such things!”

In their unchanging steadiness, stars are like old friends and comforting companions even when we run onto evil days. Take, for instance, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who went to the electric chair for the kidnapping of Charles Lindberg’s baby, although his guilt is still in question.

On the night that he was to die, he heard the guards approaching his cell in the prison at Trenton, N.J. One of them unlocked the heavy door and Hauptmann stepped out.

“Thank you,” he said to the guards. He turned and faced the death chamber at the end of the corridor. As he walked towards its door, he glanced up at a skylight in which a week earlier he had watched a sparrow which, like himself, had become imprisoned. He stopped to study a hole in the glass through which the bird had escaped to its freedom in the darkness beyond.

“Look!,” he said, “I see a star!” It was an omen of all that unchanging and yet continuing, of all that was beautiful in the world outside the walls.

Almost under his breath, he repeated, “I see a star!” They were his last words.

It remains for the living to know that even man-made stars, like those atop Christmas trees and in the ceilings of nightclubs, sometimes painted on blue roods above the altar, have a certain charm.

In Jersey City, for instance, thousands have sat beneath the star-studded ceiling of the Stanley Theater for motion pictures that lifted them out of the Depression and the war and the postwar world. When developers wanted to tear down the Stanley, an appeal was heard from those to whom the stars had offered sustenance in sometimes drab lives. “Turn the stars back on,” said their letters, “Let them twinkle for us.”

The phony stars, mere pinpoints of light, had been a focus of transcendence and triumph for hordes of people seeking diversion. “Turn the stars back on!”

Often, people themselves are stars in someone else’s life — occasionally unknown to the person who is the star. “Hold your lighted lamp on high,” urged an old priest at Nashotah House. “Hold your lighted lamp on high! Be a star in someone’s sky.” He recognized that in every life there can be gloom and the need for direction or inspiration.

In much the same way, so did the historian Charles Beard. He believed the greatest lessons of history could be summed up in four lines: (1) Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. (2) The mills of God grind exceeding small. (3) The bee fertilizes the flower it robs. (4) When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

It is that final line that captured attention — “When it is dark enough you can see the stars.” And, one could add, once you have seen the stars, then darkness is not so fearful.

Beneath one of the great telescopes of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh are buried the ashes of John Brashear, a mill worker who became interested in astronomy, turned to making telescopes, and with his wife raised the funds for the construction of the building in 1912.

Some years later, his ashes were mingled with those of his wife in the crypt beneath the large telescope, and on a wall nearby were inscribed some words from a poem entitled, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil.” Still today one can read, “Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light. I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

Another astronomer of the same period, Edwin Brant Forst, posed this question: “Do you know that your bodies are made of the same substance as stars?” Then he went on to say, “You are a sample of the great universe. So don’t let little things trouble you, but think and act knowing that you are a part of the bigger world than the little earth on which we live.”

Near the start of the glorious literature of the stars, which is only briefly sampled here, there remains the curious passage from Baruch. Baruch was a disciple of the prophet Jeremiah. Old Baruch liked to read aloud to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia in the sixth century. Think how these words must have fallen on their ears, “The stars shined in their watches and rejoiced. When God calls them, they say, ‘Here we be!’ and so with cheerfulness they show light unto him that made them.”

So it is with us as each Christmas approaches, “Here we be!” During the holy night and the new year near at hand, may we with cheerfulness show light unto him that made us.


Online Archives