Old Wives Tales, Aliens and Swift-Footed Ison

Comet Ison will soon make its perihelion debut Thanksgiving Day.

This image of Ison taken by the Hubble Space Telescope brought conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork like gluttonous, over-fed termites. These are actually three separate images of Ison taken at different times. The comet is moving and so is the telescope, thus the elongated nature of the bright objects. This is  just what you'd expect to see if you tried taking a picture of a moving train from a moving car, the resultant image would be blurred. For the less reasonably-minded, however, this served as proof aliens are coming.

This image of Ison taken by the Hubble Space Telescope brought conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork like gluttonous, over-fed termites. These are actually three separate images of Ison taken at different times. The comet is moving and so is the telescope, thus the elongated nature of the bright objects. This is just what you’d expect to see if you tried taking a picture of a moving train from a moving car, the resultant image would be blurred. For the less reasonably-minded, however, this served as proof that aliens are coming.

“Perihelion” is when this galactic snowball will swing around the backside of the sun and begin its return to its mysterious home in the Oort Cloud.

The Oort Cloud is the enigmatic and unseen region of these celestial ghosties we call comets. It’s a massive, somewhat spherical body of perhaps millions if not billions upon billions of frozen pieces of rock which surround and orbit our solar system at a distance too far away for us to actually see.

The existence of this “cloud” was theorized by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort in the early 20th century. The most famous ambassador of this celestial republic of ice is Haley’s Comet. But this eminent dignitary of the heavens is not scheduled for a visit to Earth again until 2061.

For now, however, it’s possible Oort’s latest emissary Ison might not survive its maiden solar fly-by.

The sun is kind of hot, and well, comets are made mostly of frozen stuff. So, the question for astronomers is, “Is it going to be cooked?”

It’s not unlike microwaving a box of lasagna. After several minutes in the oven, one checks to see whether or not the center of the delectable meat pie is still frozen. Will Ison thaw, heat up and disintegrate or will it come out of the microwave with its frozen core still intact? No one really knows for sure. Comets are a bit unpredictable, much like cats or the cooking power of inexpensive microwaves.

Whatever happens, it’s safe to say Ison has been the most anticipated, photographed and stared-at space object in recent astronomical history. Some of the images of Ison taken by professional and amateur astronomers alike have been breathtaking.

So what’s all the fuss? It’s just a comet, right?

Well, it all began last year, when Ison was first discovered by two Russian astronomers who named this fast-approaching chunk of ice after their astronomy club. The gaseous little ice cube was so bright at such a fantastic distance, sky watchers immediately began predicting this little guy had the potential to be some 15 times brighter than the moon by the time it whooshed through our humble cosmic suburb.

With the arrival of Ison, however, the folks who were waiting for the end of the world last December have emerged from their bunkers with a veritable plethora of renewed conspiracies. Anyone with a computer, a star watching app, a creative imagination and a video camera can say anything they want about Ison, and have.

Ison is an alien space ship. Or the ancient planet Nibiru on a collision course with Earth. Or the biblical star Wormwood (see Revelation 8. The arrival of the genuine Wormwood, however, is preceded by two other formidable earth-shattering events, according to the text of Scripture).

Folks out here in cyberspace have even wondered why NASA is covering up information about Ison. Well, NASA is not covering up anything about Ison. It can’t. There are too many of “us” watching this celestial drama unfold for ourselves. There are more eyes, telescopes, iPads, iPhones, star apps, satellites (and perhaps even flora and fauna) trained on Ison’s itinerary than there are on ads for after-Thanksgiving sales. If NASA wanted to “hide” something from the public about this fast-approaching ghost of the heavens, it better have a few extra lens caps lying about.

In fact, professional astronomers rely heavily on us amateurs to find comets. Sometimes the untrained and degreeless sky watchers know more about flying space balls than the experts.

Of course this is not to say the experts have nothing to say. In this day and age of information overload, it’s refreshing to hear level-headed astronomical experts calmly explaining the details of Ison’s trajectory and behavior; sans grey aliens, bad theology and hackneyed doomsday conspiracies.

So what is going to happen?

Despite all the best scientific observations and hypotheses out there, the bottom line is no one is precisely sure what Ison will do. That’s where a bit of the excitement comes into play. Who knows what’ll happen?

Comets have stirred the soul and imagination of man from time immemorial. What do they mean? Are they harbingers of doom and cataclysm? Why are we so easily captivated by flying frozen space debris?

First off, anything in the heavens which hurls toward our little blue mote of dust on which we so often unthankfully and pridefully float about reminds us of just how frail and vulnerable we are as people. As David says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

Indeed, comet gazing sometimes forces a few bigger questions about our existence to the surface. Who are we? How’d we get here? How’d the universe come to be? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is amazing to consider how much attention this little frozen stone has garnished in the last twelve months.

Second, it’s just plain awe-inspiring.

There’s a little fear in knowing a fast-moving ball of luminous rock and ice with a ginormous bluish-white tail not unlike that of the train of a massive wedding dress draped down the front steps of a church as the bride stands at the altar is headed our way from a mysterious, astronomical nether-region beyond the realm of human observation. What’s it all mean?

One of the bigger questions about Ison has been whether or not it’s going to hit us.

From what I’ve read and watched, the answer seems to be “No.” Not directly, anyway. It might smite our hearts or lodge itself in our worst fears or over-active imaginations, but its actual ice and dust won’t actually find its way to onto terra firma. Worst case scenario, Ison melts and breaks apart and fizzles. The left-over debris, mostly microscopic grains, will enter Earth’s atmosphere at high altitudes and burn up before coming anywhere near the surface.

It’s important as Christians to keep our heads about us regarding all of this sort of stuff, especially when many of our zealous brethren race to the Bible and yank out a verse or two from Deuteronomy and one from Revelation and make a YouTube video predicting the end of the world. There’s nothing like bad art, blurry, pixilated graphics and giant 72-point font incessantly blinking in neon-red on a background of blindingly bright turquoise promoting egregious theological claims about the last chapter of Earth’s existence. Ahg!

In the eighth chapter of the book of Isaiah, God tells His prophet not to call a conspiracy what His backslidden and idolatrous children call a conspiracy and not to fear what they fear. It’s counsel that is fitting for us today as Christians. Don’t be afraid of rocks or ice or mountains which may fall into the sea, but as the LORD tells Isaiah, “But the LORD of hosts, Him you shall honor as holy. Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.”

Even if Earth starts shaking and falling to pieces, Christian, you have nothing to fear if you are in Christ Jesus. His covenant love for you will never fall apart. “‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”

Even if all the experts’ prognostications about Ison’s benign wanderings through our neighborhood prove false and Ison slams itself into Earth like an iron fist through a plate glass window, wiping out power grids across the globe, poisoning a third of our freshwater sources and giving new meaning to “Black Friday”, God’s love for you will not fail.

I personally don’t think I’d mind (too much) if the mound of ungraded papers in my backpack was incinerated by the impact of a comet or asteroid. Ok, I’m kidding (kind of).

Either we’re going to die in cataclysmic conflagration of heavenly proportions and return to Him or He’ll return to us in a blaze of light and ear-piercing trumpet blasts and take us home.

Or, we’ll give thanks with friends and family on Thursday as Ison uneventfully plunges into the sun, only to nevertheless find ourselves trampled underfoot on Black Friday, not by Ison’s core, but by stampeding herds of sale-crazed consumers vying for some piece of overly-priced electronic device that’ll be obsolete before Christmas.

Whatever scenario unfolds as Ison rounds the sun, let this little visitor of light be a reminder to you of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, a light which shines in the darkness which is neither overcome nor understood by the darkness in which we reside and which resides in us (John 1).

Ison kind of gives me a bit of hope – light from darkness, unexpectedly arriving, captivating us. That’s what I need. It’s what we all need; the light of Christ to reinvigorate and enliven us, to give us hope and gladness and joy.

For I know all-to-well my love at times grows as cold as a comet, and it doesn’t seem as though I’m ready for Him to return. I like this world and become fearful when it seems like it might be coming to an end. Like the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow who were often given over to their 18th-century versions of our modern conspiracy theories, I too suffer from a drowsiness of mind.

Washington Irving’s opening descriptions of the sleepy little hamlet sounds prophetically like another neighborhood in which we all reside far too frequently, and one in which our intellectual rigor and sharpness of mind frequently turns to mush  – the Internet. Especially after we Google something.

“The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the [Silicon] valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.”

I ought to have a lampstand in my hand, but instead I’ve got this screen. I’m supposed to build my house upon the Rock, but yet I seem virtually forced to construct my life around silicon and all its mercurial foundations.

I often feel like one of the foolish maidens who don’t have the requisite oil or trimmed wick at the ready, quickly given over to speculative theology, bad exegetics or a simple neglect of the Word. I too have a remarkable propensity for indolence of mind and am easily perturbed and disquieted by the most fantastically banal lore and phobias known to man.

Just about anything can and does come along to discourage or frighten me when I neglect the Word.

But we are exhorted to be alert and sober. The enemy continuously prowls about like a lion, looking for those whom he may devour. Usually that devouring begins in the mind. We are in constant need of renewing it, training it, and feeding it with the truth of Scripture in order to fend off the wiles of the devil.

For the enemy, Scripture tells us, will use signs and wonders in an attempt to deceive the elect. Those could be anything from a comet, an asteroid, alien mother ship, angelic appearance or any other astronomical portend he has at his disposal to disturb our Christian hope.

Or he may just try to pry you lose from the Word with a bunch of old wives’ tales which are just as headless as the noggin-less Hessian of which they speak (1 Timothy 4:7). Do not allow superstition or fanciful cyber-conspiracies to run you out of town.

It’s a tragedy that we’ve allowed secular science, mythology and astrology to pervert and twist the way in which we interpret the heavens. Modern science tries to strip “meaning” from the heavens (it’s just “space”) while astrology and mythology attach far too much egregious meaning and superstition to them.

Christian, keep your head about you and realize it is the Lord Jesus who first created and named all the starry host.

This is our Father’s world. The heavens belong to Him.

In closing then, astronomy experts encourage us not to stare too keenly into the sun in an attempt to see whether or not Ison survives its perihelion, as gazing into the sun’s blindingly brilliant luminescence can cause permanent eye damage.

But if we’re a tad fearful, perplexed or doubting, let us rather gaze upon the Son and His Word and put all of our fears at His feet so that we may be fully prepared for His return, lamps at the ready, filled with oil. Let His luminescence give us the sight we need in order to avoid calling a conspiracy what others around us call a conspiracy.