This photo shows a three colour composite of the well-known Crab Nebula (also known as Messier 1), as observed with the FORS2 instrument in imaging mode in the morning of November 10, 1999. It is the remnant of a supernova explosion at a distance of about 6,000 light-years, observed almost 1,000 years ago, in the year 1054. It contains a neutron star near its centre that spins 30 times per second around its axis (see below). In this picture, the green light is predominantly produced by hydrogen emission from material ejected by the star that exploded. The blue light is predominantly emitted by very high-energy (“relativistic”) electrons that spiral in a large-scale magnetic field (so-called synchrotron emission). It is believed that these electrons are continuously accelerated and ejected by the rapidly spinning neutron star at the centre of the nebula and which is the remnant core of the exploded star. This pulsar has been identified with the lower/right of the two close stars near the geometric centre of the nebula, immediately left of the small arc-like feature, best seen in ESO Press Photo eso9948. Technical information: ESO Press Photo eso9948 is based on a composite of three images taken through three different optical filters: B (429 nm; FWHM 88 nm; 5 min; here rendered as blue), R (657 nm; FWHM 150 nm; 1 min; green) and S II (673 nm; FWHM 6 nm; 5 min; red) during periods of 0.65 arcsec (R, S II) and 0.80 (B) seeing, respectively. The field shown measures 6.8 x 6.8 arcminutes and the images were recorded in frames of 2048 x 2048 pixels, each measuring 0.2 arcseconds. North is up; East is left.   #L

The last three Christmases I have given myself the same present: a calendar featuring full-colour, 12” x 12 ½” photos of galaxies. One of these is now hanging from the wall next to my desk. This month’s image shows the Crab Nebula. This galactic cloud is the remnant of a star that exploded – a supernova – around 1054 AD. Things I would ordinarily call “spectacular” look downright blah next to an image like this.

God made it, of course. He made the original star and then – by processes he built into the life of stars – he made it explode. Fireworks, on a truly cosmic scale. The 12” x 12 ½” image on my wall represents a luminous cloud that is actually some 5½ light years across: well over 30 trillion miles. And it looks nothing at all like a crab. An early observer (astronomer William Parsons, in 1840) made a sketch of the nebula that resembled a crab, and the name stuck. To me, it looks more like a great blue gem, a sapphire. Surrounded by bands of flame. “Sapphire on Fire” would be a better name.

The images in these calendars never fail to comfort me. They lift my spirits. They remind me of the greatness of God.

Comfort through glory: That is the theme of one of Scripture’s stand-out chapters, Isaiah 40. This passage is a hymn to the greatness of God – in saving his people (1-11) and in ruling his world (12-31). It begins with the words “Comfort, comfort my people” (1) – and goes on to catalogue ways God is great. (Isaiah-based note to pastors and teachers: Want to encourage your people? Point them to the God’s majesty.)

Intriguingly, the Hebrew verb “Comfort” in this verse is plural. (Lost in English, but clear in the original. Like French “réconfortez” – a command addressed to more than one person.) Scholars debate whom God is speaking to here. The angels? The stars? In verse 26 Isaiah highlights the stars as a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel – God calls them each by name, and “Not one of them is missing”. So when this 30-trillion-mile-across galactic cloud looks out at me from my office wall, and says, “Your God made me. He’s that big,” I feel comforted.

As well I might. Indeed, the comforting impact of beholding God’s greatness is the point of the whole chapter.

Look at verse 27. Isaiah quotes the complaint of the people, who feel ignored by God:

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’”?

There is admonition here: “Why do you say?”

But there is comfort, too: “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (v28).

Speaking to a people who feel forgotten, this passage points them to the God who transcends all things. He is the God of all time: “the everlasting God.” He is the God of all space, all distance: “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (and the distant stars). He is the God of ceaseless, self-replenishing energy: “He does not faint or grow weary.” He is the God of know-how beyond our knowing: “his understanding is unsearchable.”

Sapphire on Fire: The handiwork of the God of all time, all distance, all energy, all wisdom.

As I write this post, it’s eleven in the evening. Today wasn’t the easiest day on record. But pondering Isaiah’s words and the photo on the wall, I feel confident about tomorrow.

Comforted, in fact.

1 Comment

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