The beginning of created things
Last week as I looked out the window at the stars, the story of the first English poem, “Song of Creation,” came to mind.
According to Bede, an eighth-century historian, an illiterate man named Caedmon herded the cattle owned by a great monastery on Northumbria’s rolling hills in what is now northern England.
One night, he retreated to the barn because of the revelry taking place in the great hall.
At that time, people related heroes’ tales orally, so the host would pass around a lyre to the guests who would compose, play, and sing heroic stories as part of the entertainment.
Inevitably, when the lyre started around, Caedmon left the festivities. No doubt, because of his time herding cattle, he felt uncomfortable in human society, unable to express his emotions or thoughts, and ashamed of his inability to compose and sing.
Maybe that evening he’d eaten a simple meal of bread, cheese, and milk while the aroma of venison pies, stuffed geese, and pastries of all sorts wafted into the barn.
I imagine the night was clear and cold with light pulsing from the stars overhead.
He must have made a bed of sorts and lay listening to the sounds of the cows chewing their cuds and shuffling their feet while the music from the party eddied into the barn.
At any rate, he fell asleep, and a person appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Caedmon, sing something for me.”
Simply, humbly, Caedmon answered, “I don’t know how to sing; for that was the reason I left the entertainment and came out to this place, because I couldn’t sing.”
Determined to bring out Caedmon’s gifts, the angel insisted, saying, “Sing the beginning of created things.”
Magic must have infused those words because the lonely, inarticulate man then sang a hymn of praise which became the first and one of the finest examples of Old English poetry.
However, the gift didn’t disappear when the dream ended. Caedmon remembered the lyrics and melody upon awakening and added to the words.
Then, he sang the song for a steward who was so enthralled that he took him to perform for Abbess Hild and a group of monks.
The abbess, recognizing the intricacy and inspiration of the composition, invited him to join the monastery, which he did.
He went on to compose many more hymns although the only one preserved is his first song of creation.
Last Friday, here in Blanding, rain pelted down during the day, turning to snow as darkness settled in. The wind howled around our house, making me sleepless, but toward dawn, the gale quieted, the skies cleared, and the stars sparkled.
Because of the season, I couldn’t help but think of another star – a newly created star – which mysteriously appeared more than 2,000 years ago in the blue-black velvet of heaven.
When I was younger, I often wondered how that star was birthed, but once, when I was visiting my dad in Kansas, my aunt and I attended an IMAX theater featuring photographs from the Hubble telescope.
We sat mesmerized as the breathtaking images rose around us three-dimensionally, including spiral galaxies, the Omega Centauri with its two million stars, the Crab Nebula in exquisite greens, teals, blues, and reds, and even supernova explosions.
Then, the narrator pointed out a star nursery, the Eagle Nebula, where interstellar gas birthed infant stars.
I thought about the humble men, shepherds, sitting around the fire after their animals had settled down for the night. The hills loomed around them full of shadows, but stars shone overhead, especially a new one pulsing with brilliant light.
Perhaps they were watching that star, wondering what it portended, when the heavens opened, and an angel appeared, saying, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy...”
Then, the men heard an entire angelic choir, saying, “On earth peace, good will toward men.”
So taken by the angelic message, they didn’t seem to wonder how peace and goodwill were possible with their country under the thumb of Roman rule even though those qualities were difficult to attain.
They still are. It’s been a tough two years for all of us.
As I write this, my dad, in a locked-down care facility in Kansas, is very sick with COVID.
A friend of mine has already lost five close family members in the pandemic. Her grief is almost unimaginable, and she is not alone in experiencing that kind of loss.
Yet if this earth is a training ground, a school for lessons that fit us for heaven, what are we learning?
One thing is clear: Out of our pain, grief, and fear, new things can be born.
Wracked by insecurity and shamed by his inability, Caedmon, touched by heaven’s grace, sang about the beginning of created things, forging as he did, his own work of beauty and wonder.
Translated into modern English by Michael R. Burch, here is a line from the last part of the poem. “Then, he, Primeval Poet, created heaven as a roof for the sons of men.”
On another continent at an even earlier time, it wasn’t the religious leaders or the rulers of the country, but shepherds, working with their animals, who witnessed the birth of a star in that heavenly roof, the song of angels, and divine love come to earth in the form of a newborn child.
During this holiday season, I wish you joy, wonder, and love.