Get yourself back into orbit
These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves.
They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; Autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted —twice dead.
They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; Wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. [Jude 12-13]
There are certain scripture verses you are taught to memorize in Sunday School, but this isn’t one of them. You could probably go to church your entire life and never hear this text in a sermon or perhaps even read aloud.
The Epistle of Jude is, for most of us, a rather enigmatic book. Tucked between the more notable books of 1 John and Revelation, it can be easy to simply miss without intention.
Nevertheless, Jude 12-13 has always been a fascinating passage to me. I am probably a sucker for metaphors, and anytime they get stacked together I am always struck by the cumulative effect. Here Jude develops a cadence of malediction that flows and sings in the dark and toxic notes, a symphony composed in the cacophony.
The idea of these wandering stars brings to mind an image of an everlasting void, the final sparks of life cold and alone, drifting into the blackness until all is extinguished into nothingness. The dismal banality of it all wrapped up in the bleak and unending abyss, locked in ice forever.
Such a fate is perhaps too hard for the heart to bear, too unspeakable for the mind to grasp. How could such an unhappy doom await such unfortunate souls?
Ah, but perhaps I am getting away from myself. What are these wandering stars that Jude has in mind, and, perhaps more importantly, how does one escape this destiny?
[divider]Music of the Spheres[/divider]
The phrase used here is asteres planetai, essentially referring to wandering stars, or, as we call them now, planets. Within many systems of ancient Greek cosmology the stars were fixed in their movements, sometimes conceived of as attached to a rotating celestial sphere. The philosophical grounding of the universe was understood to be a harmony of motion and an elegance of proportion.
But observations of the heavens from the far reaches of antiquity knew many deviants. These other objects (Mercury, Venus, Mars Jupiter and Saturn) had such seemingly erratic movements (relative to the fixed stars) so as to be considered non-fixed. Thus, instead of following the course of the other fixed stars as they seemed to move around the Earth over the seasons, these wandering stars appeared to deviate from the path of the rest of the heavens.
Because of this, these stars (notwithstanding that many ancients recognized they were not the source of their own luminance) were best described as wanderers since they moved in their own way over-against the firmament. Ancient astronomers who assumed an elegant spherical construction of the cosmos were prone to devise complicated concentric spheres and differing rotations to account for the motion of these wandering stars. As observational methods and mathematical methodologies improved, even more complicated arrangements had to be devised bring the wanderers into the fold.
Interestingly, as cosmological models (which were heavily imbued with philosophical presuppositions) came more and more to subsume the motions of the planets under a more elegant rubric, (the idea that the proportions of their movement had a music about them would survive for at least a thousand years) some authors themselves bristled at the notion of calling the planets wandering stars since this implied they were unstable, impermanent, etc. Cicero says this:
Most marvellous [of all the stars of heaven] are the motions of the five Stellae, falsely called Planeta or Stellae Errantes (Wandering Stars)–for a thing cannot be said to wander if it preserves for all eternity fixed and regular motions, forward, backward and in other directions. And this regularity is all the more marvellous in the case of the Stellae we speak of, because at one time they are hidden and at another they are uncovered again; now they approach, now retire; now precede, now follow; now move faster, now slower, now do not move at all but remain for a time stationary. [Cicero, De Natura Deorum]
Cicero would have them understood to be even more elegant because of their supposed deviance, for this allegedly aberrant movement is all the more elegant and beautiful since it is undergirded in its complexity by an eternal order. Thus, in a sense, they stand out from the rest of the stars and shine all the more brightly. (It is perhaps not coincidental that they received the names of the gods.)
[divider]Get on with it! [/divider]
Jude, however, will have none of that. The stellae errantes go against the order of the heavens, outliers from the symphonic motion that is the genius of divinity,
It would take centuries before the Ptolemaic cosmological system was displaced, and in own our time we understand that the stars are not fixed and thus not part of some celestial dance, at least as the ancients understood it. (although we still construct our own fixed spheres of the heavens) But the actual cosmological reality is hardly the point that Jude is trying to make.
We often colloquially take the term wander to have a sort of neutrality about it. If you have nothing to do you might be said to wander around town or wander through a store. A diversion at best, a waste of time at worst.
But in Jude’s sense wandering is not an innocent motion. Much like the planets that do not dance in step with the waltz of the heavens, so the people whom Jude has in view have left the path. But the clincher is that they are not simply lost- after all, you can be unfamiliar with an area and lose your bearings.
But not these. No, they are wanderers, those who know the path but choose to take another. And much like the planets carry their moons along in their orbits, so these people drag others into their snare and towards their doom.
[divider]Learn how to dance [/divider]
So what do you do if you find yourself to be among the stellae errantes? Jude, it seems, would humbly suggest that you remember the following:
See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him. [Jude 14-15]
The Maker of the stars- and yes, even of the wandering variety– will have the final say. Our lives are not meant to be a wandering through the cosmos, nor are they intended to end in the blackest darkness. Rather, the fabric of our being is woven through with the image of God, indelible threads that bind us to the divine more deeply than our skin to our bones.
It is with humility that we remember that we will be judged; life is in many ways a preparation for the reckoning. And as wandering stars can only shine with borrowed light, so may our days be found in the pull and the movements of God’s will.
Originally I had intended to make one typographic piece to illustrate this passage, but the sheer variety in the imagery simply begged to be broken out into pieces.
As such I created a piece for each section of this passage, trying to bring out a certain nuance for each of them. (which may only be apparent to me!)
Enjoy. Full-quality versions can (and should!) be viewed here.