Amid the grim coronavirus headlines, you may have missed the news of a rather special birthday: the Hubble Space Telescope marked its 30th year.
The school-bus-sized instrument, which orbits the earth about 15 times a day, peers deep into space, capturing stunning images of planets, stars and galaxies.
For its recent birthday, Hubble beamed back a shot of two nebulae, or clouds of dust and gas, just down the road from us — about 163,000 light years away.
And unlike the stuff that piles up on our coffee tables, dust in interstellar space is actually quite beautiful, especially when it combines with ionized gases to provide a light show like no other. Hubble’s latest portrait reveals rich swirls of red, blue and gold punctuated by brilliant stars that shine all the more brightly in the sweep of silent darkness. The tropical color palette inspired astronomers to nickname the nebulae (technically known as NGC 2014 and NGC 2020) the “Cosmic Reef,” since they resemble the coral of our own oceans.
An astronomical game-changer, Hubble (whose design rather resembles that of hockey’s Stanley Cup, with a few solar panels and a lid) had some awkward teenage years. Flaws in its main mirror blurred the telescope’s initial images, which were lampooned by late-night talk show hosts.
After repairs and upgrades by teams of astronauts, though, Hubble has rightly taken its place as a scientific milestone, providing accurate information about the universe’s age (some 13.8 billion years) and accelerating expansion, while confirming the existence of super-massive black holes.
But why gaze at stars in a time of plague?
With the COVID-19 pandemic devastating individuals, communities and nations themselves, staring into the sky may seem foolish and self-indulgent. Many would argue that funding for such projects (whose costs are indeed astronomical) should be redirected to relief efforts and to rebuilding gutted economies.
Yet there is a logic to looking up, especially in situations that overwhelm our fragile frames.
In Genesis, God promised a childless Abram that he would “make his reward very great” (Gen 15:1). When Abram countered that a servant instead stood to inherit his lineage, the Lord led him out of the tent for a glance at the heavens: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so … will your descendants be” (Gen 15:5).
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord calls us to zoom out from our short-sighted view of reality so that we can behold his sovereign power and providence: “To whom can you liken me as an equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these: He leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name. By his great might and the strength of his power not one of them is missing!” (Is 40:25-26).
Before feeding the five thousand, Jesus himself looked up to heaven prior to blessing “five loaves and two fish,” which (absent the miracle) hardly amounted to lunch for two people, let alone a crowd (Mt 14:13-21).
Facing the tomb of a beloved friend, Jesus “raised his eyes” in prayer to the Father before raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:41)
Hours before his arrest, torture and crucifixion, Jesus “raised his eyes to heaven” and, in a passage known as the “great (or high) priestly prayer,” invoked the Father to glorify him in his passion, while interceding for all those whom the Father had given him (Jn 17:1-26).
Through the lens of fear and disbelief, the disciples could not perceive the full reality of Jesus’ words. In this life, our vision is indeed limited, and we tend to look down, rather than up and beyond present circumstances.
Just as earthly telescopes, for all their advances, cannot fully counter the blurring effect of our planet’s atmosphere, we need to launch a kind of “spiritual Hubble” — a faith that frees us to transcend ourselves, and to look up from our suffering to a Lord who “stretched out the heavens like a veil” (Is 40:22) while engraving us upon the palms of his hands (Is 49:16).
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