A whopper of a tail
Some years ago, my wife, Martha, my daughter, Penny, and I set our alarm for four in the morning so we could get up in time to see a comet that had received enormous press coverage. We drove about 40 minutes up to the Central Plateau of Tasmania where, unencumbered by town lights and atmospheric haze, we thought we would get the best view. The cloudless sky lifted our hopes. We trained our binoculars in the general direction the news reports told us to look and began scanning. It took a couple of minutes before we spotted it. There it was, the first comet I had ever laid eyes on. But boy, were we disappointed. With the naked eye one could just make out a faint spot of light and a tenuously glowing short tail. A search on the Internet leads me to believe it was Hale-Bopp.
What a contrast with our recent experience. I heard of Comet McNaught barely two weeks ago when a friend left a message on our answering machine telling us to look towards the west shortly after sunset. That night I did as instructed. I got up on our roof and started searching. Clouds obscured about half the sky; I saw nothing. The next day I heard someone on a talkback program complaining about how disappointing the whole thing was. I forgot all about it. Four nights later our phone rang at about 10:30. A friend's voice at the other end said, “Have you looked towards Quamby Bluff?” I hadn't. She said, “I just went to open a window and I couldn't believe what I saw”. Martha and I trooped outside onto the patio and looked towards Quamby. Unbelievable. Showing itself in the gaps between a few narrow bands of clouds was a sight we never expected to see — just above the lowest bank of cloud was a clear light much brighter than Venus has ever been, from which extended a spectacular, diaphanous, glowing tail projecting heavenwards and curving gently towards the western horizon. Web sites say the tail stretches for a distance about the size of a human hand held at arm's length from the body. One South African site said it was only about half a hand. For us it was bigger; I reckon it spanned at least 30 degrees of sky, if not 40. We watched for about 20 minutes till the ball dropped behind the clouds. The next night was totally cloud free. We decided to take a couple of folding chairs down to the local town common where we sat mesmerized for about thirty minutes just taking in the spectacular sight, alternating between staring at it through binoculars and with the naked eye. That was a week ago today; most nights since then we have observed it for a few minutes, but each time it has faded compared with the previous evening. It is now being
proclaimed the brightest comet for decades.
What wonderful beasts are comets — rocky cores five to ten miles in diameter with a covering of “snow” or dust (about 80-90% of its mass) — coursing around the sun in huge elliptical orbits, shedding their outer soft stuff when they come close enough to the sun for its frozen gases to be heated up and expelled. Well, that's one theory about their heavenly wanderings. Another says that they are actually orbiting a theoretical rocky core produced by the explosion of a planet that once existed between Mars and Jupiter. Almost a thousand have been cataloged, but astronomers believe that upwards of a trillion potential comets are flashing and dancing around in a comet nursery, the Oort Cloud, far out beyond the most distant planets, just waiting to be released from day care by some gravitational perturbation that will send them charging through our solar system as comets.
I get emotional thinking about what we saw seven nights ago. Why are comets out there? Your answer to that depends on your philosophy of life. We all make a choice between believing that such fabulous wonders are purely fortuitous lapdogs of an accidental “explosion” or are there because God put them there. I choose the latter as making far more sense. Oh sure, many phenomena can be “explained” as the natural result of a natural process — sand on the beach comes from the erosion of mountains upstream. But who created the processes? I believe they exist to bring delight to human beings and glory to God, the Father of Jesus Christ, who created them.
I doubt I'll ever see the likes of Comet McNaught again in my life. But think about this. Do you imagine God has put all the universe's marvels into place only to deny us the opportunity of seeing them ever again? I mean, after we die. Isaiah said,
Lift up your eyes to the heavens , and look on the earth beneath. For the heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment… (51:6)
Eternal life is a long time. As spirits, unbound by limits of time and space, glorified saints will surely have both the time and the ability to become familiar with every nook and cranny of this universe before it grows old and is changed. What Martha and I saw the other night is a tiny foretaste of experiences that lie ahead. To God be all the praise.