Above: Nebula in Orion. Photo courtesy of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

17 December, 2000

Dear Friend,

We can, with our own eyes, see something happening two thousand years ago. Look up into the sky at night and you can see stars two thousand light-years away. The light we see is shining at the time Mary gave birth to Jesus, but it just now got here to the planet Earth and our eyes.
. . . Usually events that long ago seem distant, hazy, unreliable. History -- generations passing knowledge to next generations -- can seem nebulous and imprecise. But looking at the stars we can see history with our own eyes. We can see something happening thousands of years ago.
. . . To believe this involves some faith in science, especially that light travels six-billion-billion miles a year across the universe, everywhere the same.
. . . Of course, not all stars are 2,000 light-years away. If my calculations are correct, our sun -- a star -- is about eight light-minutes away. The next closest star is about four light-years away. A star called "25 Cyg" (in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan?) is about 2,000 light-years away according to data gathered by the recently-launched Hipparcos satellite. Some stars (actually, quasars) are billions of light-years away.
. . . To look at starlight is to engage in a sort of time travel.

A different experience seeing light is the one Hank Williams sang about.

"I saw the light, oh, I saw the light,
"Praise the Lord, oh, I saw the light."

It's not a song you'll find in the Episcopal Hymnal. It's an ecstatic song about someone who experiences the same illumination Jesus' disciples experienced two thousand years earlier. It's about someone's heart being filled with light and love.
. . . Hank Williams' life tells us a lot about the transforming power of an encounter with the light, in particular that it guarantees neither health, wealth, nor wisdom. A prolific songwriter, Williams' alcohol and drug problems led him to an early death at age 29 after a failed marriage and numerous attempts to kick his addictions.
. . . This brings to mind singer/songwriter Neil Young's slogan that it is better to burn out than to rust. (Neil has done neither; he's forever Young.)
. . . Today, thanks to the miracle of recordings, you can experience Hank Williams' music as fresh as it was first heard fifty and sixty years ago.
. . . To listen to the recordings of music stars is to engage in a sort of time travel.

Another kind of time travel occurs at Christmas when families get together and continue to relate to each other in the same ways they have for decades. For many, gathering at Christmas is like a journey into the past. We become the people we once were. It's a habit not easily changed. Parents treat children like children; children full grown for many years act again like youngsters.
. . . There's nothing wrong with this, so don't feel bad if it happens. But the fact is you've matured over the years! Share that with your family. Don't be content letting them only see the person you used to be. Let them also see the person who has matured, the person you've become. And look to see what kind of people they've become!
. . . If you can do that, then perhaps you, and they, will get a glimpse of the future, of the people you and they will become -- people bright shining as the sun, people who, after ten thousand light-years, will have only just begun praising God and bathing in each other's glory -- lights in God's heaven.
. . . Have a Merry Christmas, superstar!

Sloan Digital Sky Survey
http://www.sdss.org/
A new telescope in New Mexico is cataloging 100 million celestial objects. Many images; excellent website.

Stellar Distances
http://www.cyburban.com/~mrf/a_distance.htm
An excellent resource for astronomy; extensive, clearly written, and accessible to beginners.

Icons of the 20th Century: Hank Williams
http://www.abilene2000.com/icons/1228.html
A short biography of this country music star from the pages of the Abilene Reporter-News.

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Text and images copyright 2000 Danny Nelson Schweers