He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit. (Psalm 147.3-5)
A Vastly Different Sky
Three summers ago, I pulled a New Yorker from the pile of unread issues and found “The Dark Side,” David Owen’s piece on light pollution. I was riveted before finishing the first paragraph’s description of Galileo’s homemade telescopes and three discoveries he made with them: lunar mountains; Jupiter’s moons; and the Milky Way’s composition of individual stars. The last one stunned Galileo’s peers, who theorized the galaxy—which looked like milk spilling from the sky—was a “continuous substance.” What stunned me was learning the Milky Way had once been visible to the naked eye. “The stars have not become dimmer; rather, the Earth has become vastly brighter, so that celestial objects are harder to see,” Owen explained. That sounded reasonable. Then came the real shocker. The prevalence of artificial light and air pollution binding it to our planet results in seeing “less than one per cent of what Galileo would have been able to see without a telescope.” We’ve lost over 99% of our night vision to the fear of not seeing what’s near us after darkness falls.
Before “The Dark Side," I’d never considered how most of the Christmas narrative occurs in a nighttime bearing little resemblance to the one we know. That is, assuming our assumptions that much happens over night are correct. Luke’s Annunciation account doesn’t note the hour, though a nighttime scenario seems right, as people in Mary’s era were seldom alone by day. It’s also likely we assume the angel appears to her while everyone sleeps because Matthew tells us Joseph’s visitation comes in a dream. As these events transpire in Nazareth, the Magi traverse the desert, trailing The Christ Star through the heavens. Matthew doesn’t say they reach Bethlehem on Christmas night. (Epiphany celebrates their arrival 12 days later.) Still, legend places them manger-side with the shepherds, who journey to the stable after an angel choir interrupts their night watch. Setting the saga in the wee hours, when the world goes silent and dark, makes for an exciting, mysterious tale—just as conflating the Magi and shepherds’ adoration creates a lovely tableau. But “The Dark Side” causes us to become very mindful that the story unwinds under a vastly different sky than the one we know. That inspires us to refine and adjust how we interpret night’s role in Advent, literally and metaphorically.
Nighttime Is the Right Time
We’ve modernized Advent’s night to mean impenetrable darkness rife with fear and danger—i.e., what we most fear: absence of light. On one level, we’re not wrong. Darkness is a fearful, dangerous thing in ancient times, which is why Messianic and Early Church writers use it to describe our state prior to Christ’s appearance. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah 9.2 declares, while 1 Peter 2.9 tells us we are chosen to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Hearing these and numerous similar verses, we instantly infer “night and day,” when they actually suggest light appears in darkness to guide us safely through it. And that’s because night is never absent of light in the writers’ minds. The night sky is a luminescent, breathtaking pageant of celestial bodies in constant flux. These scriptures evoke tensions between the heavens, where God performs amazing feats, and Earth, where sunlight’s absence exposes the night traveler to deadly threats and impediments. Darkness commands humanity to stay put and watch God work. Comets streak the night canopy. Planets of every shade and size glisten like jewels. Meteors flare and fizzle. Milk pours out of the sky.
Thus, while we get the fear-and-danger aspect of Advent’s night, we may be missing its most crucial aspect. The emphatic use of darkness urges us to find our place in God’s universe. Turning from knowledge gained by ordinary daylight allows us to see God’s power hovering just above our heads. Darkness becomes more than the night season when we long for Light’s appearance. It’s when the Light—the great Light, the wonderful Light—makes possible what we can’t accomplish without its illumination. Bypassing historical facts altogether, John employs the light-dark metaphor to recount Christ’s birth, saying, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1.5) Though darkness surrounds us, when we see the Light and walk in the Light, we can’t be overcome by benighted, natural-minded fears and threats. Dramatic impact notwithstanding, nighttime is the right time for Advent’s story. It’s when God works wonders we can’t explain. It’s when we rehearse for times when dark hours enfold us and we look above for light to guide us through them. It’s when our stasis ends and we step into God’s certainty and safety. By day, we manage our earthly affairs. At night, we marvel at our place in God’s universe.
Spun from Messianic filament, Psalm 147 shines its own light on the tensions between the heavens and Earth that play out in Advent’s light-dark metaphors. One is quickly engaged by its vertical pairings: God does something on the ground, followed by something in the sky—or vice versa. Bearing the vastness and versatility of the ancient sky in mind, its first combination acquires thrilling potency. First, God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (v3) Then God “determines the number of the stars and calls each of them by name.” (v4) Specificity is the common link. The psalmist looks at a night sky strewn with millions of lights—too many to count or identify. Yet God numbers and names each one, just as God cares for each of us who suffer because of emotional and/or physical violence we’ve endured. Not one of us is the same. Yet God heals us and binds our wounds, one by one, name by name.
“Great is our Lord and mighty in power,” verse 6 exclaims. “God’s understanding has no limit!” As Advent’s journey continues, we pray for night vision to see the majestic Presence above our heads. When we marvel at the night sky’s vast expanse of stars, planets, and galaxies, we realize we’re seeing God’s universe as God sees our world. Each of us has a place. God sends Light to guide us through night seasons. God knows us by name. God works wonders by healing us to display unlimited power and understanding. Light shines in darkness. Darkness cannot overcome it. There’s nothing to fear. That’s the Advent story.
This picture, taken atop the Chilean Andes, approximates what Mary and Joseph saw when looking into the night sky. God’s majesty is seen in its vastness. God’s mercy shines in each star.
Postscript: “Starry Night”
This video matches dazzling photographs of star formations to Chris August’s “Starry Night,” reminding us of the power that hovers just above our heads. You are like one of these stars. So am I.