The comet ISON, astronomers predicted earlier this year, could prove a heavenly Christmas gift to sky-watchers. The 2013 “Christmas star,” bright enough for daylight viewing. I decided not to miss it.
“But comets are like cats,” one expert noted. “Unpredictable. To reach maximum brilliance, ISON will have to survive a near pass of the sun—the astronomic equivalent of the distance between two parked cars in a parking lot.”
Early morning, late November: I sit in bed, checking my tablet for news of ISON. Our eight-year old grandson, on sleepover leave in my office/guest room, wakes. Pads down the hall to the master bedroom. “Good morning, Nana,” he whispers, standing close.
Morning. Yes. Though our window gleams like black chrome, the digital clock on my tablet reads 7:14 AM*. I make room. He slides into bed beside me, glancing curiously at the astronomical graph on my tablet screen.
“Benjamin, do you know what a comet is?”
“Not really, Nana.”
I do my best to explain the photos I bring up on my screen—that a comet is a great big ball of rocks and ice, all mixed up with gases, passing through space. That when it gets near the sun, it starts to expel those gases. That they eject from the comet’s backside, making a long, bright tail. “Just a few people ever to see one for real,” I tell him.
A thought strikes me. “Bean,” I say, “there’s a comet named ISON out there right now. Shall we go look for it?”
He leaps into coat and boots. Leaving the bed to the Preacher and the cat, we grab the binoculars and head out to the car. On a quiet road beside a shorn barley field we stand, scanning the southeast sky. Our breath emerges like small clouds.
In an hour the sun will rise. Already the horizon flushes pink. But the night sky bewitches us. Stars float up there. Planets, too. But we see nothing with a tail.
Nana, I’m freezing, he says. Maybe next week, I say. We climb back in the car and drive home.
On December 5th, NASA confirmed ISON’s fate. “It was not able to survive its closest flyby with the Sun.” The Comet of the Century proved a dud.
That’s what some people said—still say—about Jesus Christ. For centuries prophets promised a Messiah, a Deliverer. But when he arrived, Heaven-sent and star-ushered, he didn’t occupy a throne. His first breaths sucked in the reek of a barnyard. His first sight took in his weary teenaged mother and a bemused middle-aged man he would call father.
Throughout Jesus’ 33 years of life on earth, he proved a disappointment to many. A dud deliverer. A star that fizzled out. But others recognized the truth: the manger held the Creator of the stars, before whom every knee will one day bow.
Jesus is still the true—the only—star of Christmas. Don’t miss him.
*corrected–(the newspaper version says 6:14)