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Essay

Surviving perihelion

By December 2, 2013 2 Comments
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 I’ve been daydreaming about the comet Ison a lot the last few days, fascinated by this celestial body that has been making interesting headlines. Ison was detected just over a year ago, slated to be the “comet of the century” lighting up our night skies this December. Last week, on Thanksgiving Day, it finally reached perihelion, its closest approach to the sun (about 700,000 miles from the sun, going 850,000 miles per hour, if you’re wondering). Expert and amateur astronomers alike were giddy over what might happen, and NASA even hosted a live Google hangout. Would the comet survive its brush with such intense heat, or would the sun vaporize its very nucleus? Well, the “dirty snowball” that made its way here from the edge of the solar system, after forming some 4.5 million years ago, has yet to fully declare itself. In the hours after perihelion, it was declared dead, but a small something with a tail has been detected, leading reporters to declare its “resurrection,” “zombie,” or “ghost” status. A Slate blogger wrote “ISON After Perihelion: The Undead Maybe Somewhat Ex-Comet” and noted, “I wouldn’t say the comet survived, so much as some of it wasn’t destroyed. A subtle difference, perhaps, but clearly something is still there.” Scientists have conceded that we’ll just have to wait and see what actually became of the comet.

Wait and see what remains. Such a contrast to the frenzied pace and summons to excess at this time of year. We’re at that busy point in our annual trip around the sun ourselves, inundated with messages that tell us to keep accumulating, keep consuming, keep getting this year’s version of last year’s stuff. Buy now, hurry, don’t miss, can’t-wait deals. Nevermind those who still don’t have enough to consume—literally—on their kitchen tables.

And once again in our annual trip around the sun we are invited into the deep work of preparation, of Advent, of anticipating our own perihelion, our own encounter with the Son. I wonder, what can withstand this advent, this coming; how much of it is chaff that will be burned away? The words of the prophet Malachi, set to music in Handel’s Messiah, resound in my mind:

“But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.”

I’m not sure how much will be left after our priorities and preoccupations and possessions are refined. I know this much: whatever abides the encounter will have the distinct notes of being good news to the poor. Let’s just hope that we will be able to say, of what we are investing our time and money and energy and hearts in right here and now, that “some of it wasn’t destroyed.”

Maybe we are a little like Ison ourselves. In a cosmic wilderness, hurtling through time and space, leaving a trail behind us, following relatively predictable patterns, able to fancy ourselves the centers of our own universe. Unaware of the gradual tug of gravity that draws us closer and closer to that which was at the center all along, until that point when we come closest to what will expose, refine, and purify us, the place where the unpredictable can happen, where mystery can emerge on the other side. Where we will be changed. Not annihilated, but transformed, in the blink of an eye.

In this season where our measurements of expectation and disappointment and mystery can get refined, or blown completely out of proportion, maybe it’s good to look up at the night sky and simply marvel that something so far off could be drawn in at last. There is hope for us yet.

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