Breadcrumbs

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  John 6:24-35

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Breadcrumbs

Bread is evil, or so the internet tells us. Never mind that we humans have looked upon bread as our most basic foodstuff for millennia. Now we hear that eating bread makes us fat, inclines us to diabetes, and perhaps even to worse things than that.

I do not intend to give it up. I like bread. Any food so central to the human experience as to become a metaphor for life itself is worth keeping.

FreshBread_wideBread is the metaphor that Jesus repeatedly uses for himself and for God’s relationship to humanity. “I am the bread of life,” he says in the Gospel of John. Later the same Gospel records Jesus using even more vivid language, declaring that his followers must take and consume his broken body. Some Romans—not surprisingly—wondered whether early Christians were cannibals. Such language combined with descriptions of the ritual of communion raised doubts.

None of it was meant literally, of course. Jesus was not urging people to take a bite out of him. He may not even have meant to limit the metaphor to himself. So much attention goes to his claim of being the bread of life that we gloss over the preceding statement: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

That which comes and gives life–that is a much broader statement. It is no longer just bread, no longer just Jesus. How about light and warmth? How about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the trillions of atoms, molecules, interactions and energy sustaining us?

What about the touch of a loved one, the smile of a child, the kindness of a stranger? What are they but a trail of breadcrumbs leading to God?

They sustain us as surely as our daily bread.

Daily bread—it is a phrase we have from the prayer Jesus taught his followers. The Greek word is επιούσιος, epiousios, and it is a peculiar one. It is a hapax legomenon, a word or saying found only in one context, in this case the Lord’s prayer. Matthew and Luke each contain versions of the prayer, drawing on the same source and preserving this odd term.

επιούσιος might mean daily, or needed, or necessary. It might mean something else altogether. We have nothing for comparison, no other use of the term.

Perhaps it means “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”—that kind of bread.

For people of faith, everything that sustains us is the gift of God. Such faith-speak puts off those who are wary of the not-yet-known, and anything dressed in God-language is rejected by the devoutly non-religious. Nevertheless, what we couch in the language of faith does not loose its reality.

Knowing that the effusive light bathing our world is flung to us in particles and waves from the star at the center of our planet’s orbit does not harm my faith. Light, energy emitted by the sun, is natural. As the warmth on my child’s face, it is miraculous. The one thing does nothing to lessen the other.

On a hot August day, understanding how ice cream is made does nothing to lessen the wonder of it. Knowing the science of baking bread does not diminish the taste of it.

The ritual of communion has been explained by theologians so many ways. For some, the bread is miraculously, if metaphysically, the actual body of Christ. For others, God is present in some way that is just beyond expression or comprehension, somehow behind or with the bread. For still others, the bread is merely a symbol, a way of imagining the simple and sustaining gift of God’s presence.

No matter how we explain a symbol, the reality behind it remains. No matter how long the trail of crumbs that lead back to the origin of life on this planet, all that sustains us is of God. Explanations of love need not stand in the way of experiencing it.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

Two Fish

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost  |  John 6:1-21

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Two Fish

Why is this miracle so popular—the feeding of a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee? It is the miracle found in all four of the gospels, and it is odd that this one claims such attention. Jesus makes blind people see, heals people with a touch or a word, even brings the dead back to life, and we gloss over the details. Let him feed a crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we keep talking about it.

Only one other miracle holds our attention this way—Jesus walking on the water of the same sea. Oh, we talk about his resurrection, but not in this way, and we tend to put the resurrection story in a category by itself. Ask any child in Christendom to tell about the miracles Jesus performed, and she will tell you about the loaves and the fishes and about walking on water.

We get it, on some level. The tale of feeding the multitudes fills our own hunger for security, addresses our fears that our own needs will not be met. In gathering the people, Jesus is our mother. In giving food, he is our father.

Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard
Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard, 1505-1566. Museum Rockoxhuis, Antwerp.

It is a story of comfort, needfulness, shelter. Something deep within us responds, seeing our simplest, basic needs of rest and food being met by the image of God. This is not a God of the heavens, or of distant thrones or fire and thunder. This is God choosing to be present in the sharing of a simple loaf of bread.

This is God demonstrating the divine in the commonplace. It is epiphany in breadcrumbs.

As to walking on the water, who would not wish to do such a thing? We would revel like children in such a power, to feel our bare feet supported by the waves.

We suspect that our lives are ephemeral, shifting around us like water. If only we could learn to rest in the currents that we fear will drown us, to trust in the continuity of change to support us, then merely walking on water would seem a simple thing.

Perhaps it is no mystery as to why we tell each other the stories of these two miracles, no mystery as to why we treasure them above so many others. A blind man who sees is wonderful, and we sense that in some times and some ways each of us is blind. A sick person is healed, and we realize that any of us may succumb to illness. We accept that death comes to each of us, if a chariot of fire does not Elijah us away, but that is no match for our present awareness of the transience of life, the denial enabling us to imagine we are walking on solid ground.

All of us respond to hunger. All of us need rest. All of us need to feel that we are standing and not sinking.

It is no miracle that we tell these stories. It is only human.

Having these stories to tell? That is a God thing.

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto
“Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti): The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” (13.75) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/13.75. (March 2014)

The Other Side

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 6:30-56

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

The Other Side

He was tired. He must have been.

He had tried to take some time off, to lead his friends and followers on a retreat, out in the wilderness away from it all, but when they got to the spot they found that everyone had gotten there ahead of them.

It was a little like going to Yellowstone to enjoy nature only to be followed by busloads of tourists everywhere you go. And these people did not come to look at the bears. They came on the buses with the sole purpose of finding you.

It was the same wherever Jesus went, first one crowd and then another. He took a boat, aiming to land at a nice secluded spot, but it is hard to hide a boat on the water and the people came, a great throng of them, to find him.

I would have been irritable, cross, put out. If Jesus was, he covered it well. He seemed to reflect that while he had sailed to this unplanned rendezvous, these thousands of people had walked the long way round to find him. He saw that they needed it so badly, wanted it so much. So instead of leading a retreat for a few friends, he led one for a few thousand folk, talking to them, even managing to feed them.

Jesus tried again. After he had dismissed the people, some of them no doubt lingering while he urged them to head home, he sent his friends back across the water in the boat.

Painting - Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
“Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” by Rembrandt. 1633. Stolen 1990, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, current whereabouts unknown.

There they were, his friends, out on the Sea of Galilee. The story says that he had gone up on a mountain where he could probably see their progress. He was trying for some alone time. Maybe he got a little rest before the storm rolled in.

He watched the cloud line, felt the wind, watched the waves grow, and he knew that his friends would be afraid. People who know nothing about the water can be afraid of it. People like some of his friends, lifelong boatmen and fisherfolk, know enough to be terrified of what a sudden squall can do to them.

And he saved them, of course. It is a famous story. Jesus walked on the stormy water, in the semidarkness of the early hours, and he calmed the storm and joined them in the boat.

There are some odd details.

For one thing, the story says that he meant to pass them by. We can’t quite tell whether he meant to pass by unseen or to pass by so that they would see him. Never mind how he was managing to walk on the water. For another thing, Mark’s Gospel says that when he got into the boat, the wind ceased, without being clear as to whether it was cause and effect or happenstance, though we are inclined to see another miracle. Of course, this miracle meant that the rest of them had to start rowing.

When they reached the other shore, people recognized Jesus and started bringing crowds and fetching sick relatives, expecting Jesus to heal them. One might imagine a doctor finally opening a clinic in a remote valley of Appalachia. The people brought their sick and put them on mats, in the streets where Jesus would pass, in the marketplaces of their villages. It must have been a sight, and an unsettling one, his path bordered and measured by people who needed him. Some of them wanted more than others. Some only wanted to touch his robe, to make the experience real or let some power move through the touch, and he let them.

Of course, he did.

The people in our path—it’s all so obvious isn’t it?—we help them, though it would be nice if the Gospel were clearer on the whole walking-on-water and calming-storms and healing-people thing. There are no explanations of the mechanism by which it works, if it still works at all. It is a God thing.

Painting by Delacroix - Christ Calming the Tempest
“Christ Calming the Tempest” by Eugène Delacroix

We’re left to do what we do, and we watch for God to do what God might do, and we call the whole experience faith. It is a sometimes unsatisfactory arrangement, depending on one’s expectations.

When God passes us by, for instance, is it to remain unseen or in the hope that we’ll notice? Of course, the atheist would say that nobody is passing by—it is only the wind, or an idea, and no one knows where those come from or where they will go.

Faith is remaining open to the possibilities. It is not being stupid. It is being imaginative, hopeful, open, and humble enough to suppose that we are not the greatest thing in the universe.

The wind doesn’t listen to us, or if it does, it seldom agrees. We’re rubbish at walking on water. That sort of thing is God stuff, and not our job anyway.

Even in matters of faith, we don’t get to do the God things, which is good. We do the follower things. Our hugs do not heal, but they may help. We walk alongside the needy, like a kind non-believer might do, with the difference that we hope God is walking on their other side whether or not anyone notices.

We feed the hungry people, and we talk to the lonely ones, believing that God was already in the business of doing that before we got there. We think that the opportunity to help is also a God thing—not making people needy, but helping us to see them when they are.

Maybe there were no miracles in that story. Maybe there were stepping stones in the sea, and everyone had food stashed away, and Jesus just got them to share. Maybe the storm just ended, as they all do.

Something happened around the shores of Galilee, something different enough that we have four gospels telling the stories. Something happened that makes us look more kindly on one another, something that helps us respond when needier people reach out and touch us.

That’s pretty miraculous. That’s a God thing.

Off With His Head

Painting of Salome by Titian

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 6:14-29

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Off With His Head

I’ve never seen a single verse from this passage on a T-shirt or a refrigerator magnet.

It is such a strange story. For one thing, it’s a sandwich. That’s what brilliant theologians and expositors call a passage where Mark sticks one thing in the middle of something else.

Painting of Salome by Titian
“Salome” by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), c. 1515. Held at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome.

In the middle of this story about some disciples going out and preaching on their own, we hear about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is ironic, since preaching is precisely what got John the Baptist in trouble—he had been opening his mouth and telling the people who would listen everything that he thought they ought to hear. Unfortunately for John, one of the things he preached was that people in positions of power ought not to behave like King Herod.

Speaking the truth to power is generally not welcomed by the ones with the power. It’s like that all the way up: parents, teachers, bosses, politicians and kings. Just because what you have to say may be true is no reason to expect that they will want to hear it.

It’s the job of faithful people to tell it anyway, even if the hearers want to chop off some heads, even if it lands us in a Birmingham jail.

Stories like this one stick with you. We’ve been telling them to each other ever since Og and his clan started watching firelight on cave walls. We still do it. That’s the real reason flat screen TVs are more popular than the old versions–a flat screen hanging on the living room wall matches our deep ancestral memories of listening to stories in the cave, painting the walls by firelight. Technology has just brought us back to where we started. And stories carry more truth than rules ever could.

The story of John the Baptist sounds like Southern gothic writing, like something from The Sound and the Fury or Deliverance. A lecherous half-drunk king, a beautiful half witted girl, a witch of a mother—how’d you like to have a mother like this one?—and a bearded wild man prophet with his head on a dinner plate. We’re inclined to believe every word of it, not because it is in the Bible but because who would make up all that?

There’s much we can learn.

We need to be careful of our promises, for one thing. Jesus warned people not to swear to things without thinking. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

Herod made an oath, in front of everyone, promising his daughter—her name may have been Herodias or it may have been Salome—anything she wanted. He did not foresee the consequences. Not that killing one more person gave Herod any qualms, but he liked listening to John, which is dead odd, since it was Herod listening to John that had gotten John imprisoned in the first place.

Painting of Salome by Caravaggio
“Salome” by Caravaggio, c. 1607, National Gallery in London

“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” The slightly smaller fish in the pond were all gathered around watching, and Herod did not want to look like the sort of man who would go back on his word.

It is ironic, isn’t it? Everybody in the room had seen Herod do worse than refuse to kill an innocent man. Nevertheless, he kills John—though he had someone else swing the sword—to maintain appearances and for the sake of pride.

And it didn’t work, did it? Once they brought John’s head up from the prison, like a gruesome entree on a serving platter, nobody thought better of Herod for it.

Even that bunch of court sycophants knew Herod better than that. They weren’t blind.

Maybe I should make a little confession here. You see, I often do things (no head chopping) just for the sake of pride or to keep up what I think is an appearance. Monty Python said it right. I’m not fooling anybody.

Let’s think about the girl’s mother, Herod’s wife. Herodias. Now there’s a piece of work. She really does sound like the evil witch in a fairy tale, doesn’t she? The girl comes, breathless, to her mother, who is not at the party—perhaps it was a men only affair—saying, “What shall I ask for?”

The head of John the Baptist. On a platter. Hold the body.

She reaches down and asks for the worst thing that her self-absorbed, arrogant, revenge seeking mind can think of. We despise her.

Worse, we understand her.

Don’t we?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we have to pick the character in this little play that is most like ourselves, who is it? The pretty dancing girl? Maybe. We’ve all done stupid things and been proud of them at the time.

How about the king? Herod himself? Not many of us really want to identify with him. We know too much about him to be sympathetic.

John the Baptist? That is a possibility. We’ve all lost our heads at one time or another, with the difference being that most of us put our own heads on plates and walked off without them. Some of us have been imprisoned, either physically or more likely in other more subtle ways. Some of us know what it is like to have other people begrudge our existence, sometimes for very wrong reasons. Some of us might identify with the prophet.

Most of us are not so honest as John the Baptist, not so brave. We’re not sure that we are speaking for God—that thought gives us pause. It should give any decent person pause.

How about the wicked, evil, horrible, no-good, witch of a queen? Well, if this were an actual play, that would be the fun part, wouldn’t it? To really let loose and be the dark hearted self-serving vengeful creature that this woman became? Now that would be entertainment.

We love the stories with evil witch queens, and we love them for a lot of reasons. One that we need to think about is this—we know that she is just doing what we’d love to do, what we might do, if we weren’t afraid or if we had the power. Oh, we might not go killing folk, not at first, but imagine getting anything you want.

The reason we hold onto stories like this one, with John the Baptist losing his head, dying in a cause he could not have fully understood but for which he was willing to give his life, and other stories like it, real and imagined, is for the truth that is in them.

G K Chesterton said this about fairy tales:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

Neil Gaiman summarized the idea this way:
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” He went on to describe the power of great stories to “…furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” (Here’s a link to a wonderful article on a website called BrainPickings.org — Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last.)

We hold onto the fairy tales with the wicked witches and evil kings and trolls and dragons not because they are factual, but because they are true. In much the same way, we do not tell the stories of the Garden of Eden and of the prophet Elijah and of John the Baptist because of factual content. Such facts are only for people who want to distract themselves from the truth. There is a difference.

John the Baptist was executed by Herod. That is the simple fact of the matter. We are still telling this story because John the Baptist dead had more to offer than Herod alive. That is the truth.

Now imagine that you are sitting wherever the evil queen was sitting, and the girl comes to you.

“I can get anything, anything at all,” she says, only now she sounds just the tiniest bit like a beautiful snake in a story about a garden.

“Anything,” she whispers. “And I won’t tell anyone that it was your idea. What shall I ask for?”

What do we tell her? More to the point, what do we want to tell her? It is the sort of test that helps us figure out who we are, uncovers what we hide from ourselves. What would we ask for? What do we want?

What would we see on our platter?

Know thyself, the Greeks said. The unexamined life is not worth living. More than 400 years after Socrates, Jesus gave us something of the same idea. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

By our answers, we shall know ourselves.

This is the real hero’s quest, to find the secrets we keep from ourselves. In stories, the girl or boy, our hero, goes off to find a treasure or to slay a dragon, but that is usually only in stories. The true heroes are you and I, which is why we love these tales. The real quest takes us inside our own hearts, to see whether there is any treasure after all, or to slay the dragon we find hiding there.

We get one life, one wish, one story. What happens next?

Dust Beneath Our Feet

Mark 6:1-13  |  Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Dust Beneath Our Feet. This Gospel says that Jesus returned to his hometown, which in the Gospel of Mark is Capernaum. That is where his house was. (Mark 2:1 — If you ever want to play at Indiana Jones relic hunting, forget about the Holy Grail. Go to Capernaum and dig up Jesus’ house. Imagine the ticket sales.)

On the sabbath, he went over to his synagogue and sat to teach, and the people who gathered there were astounded. We don’t know why. Perhaps it was because of the things he was saying, or it may be just that he took it upon himself to teach. Either way, he offended them.

Their complaint, oddly, was that they knew him, or thought they did. They knew his parents, his family, their occupation, and so they did not think to hear anything marvelous from him. As he sat and taught in the synagogue, he missed their expectations. He overshot. He was more than they thought he should be, more than any of them wanted him to be, and they took offense.

We don’t expect much out of the people we know; for the most part, we don’t want much out of them. Try it sometime. Achieve any sort of excellence, and you will be surprised by the people who want to push you down to the level of their comfort. The achievements of others remind us of our own mediocrity.

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way. It is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), close to the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is, like its neighbour the Quintuplet Cluster, a fairly young astronomical object at between two and four million years old. The Arches cluster is so dense that in a region with a radius equal to the distance between the Sun and its nearest star there would be over 100 000 stars! At least 150 stars within the cluster are among the brightest ever discovered in the the Milky Way. These stars are so bright and massive, that they will burn their fuel within a short time, on a cosmological scale, just a few million years, and die in spectacular supernova explosions. Due to the short lifetime of the stars in the cluster, the gas between the stars contains an unusually high amount of heavier elements, which were produced by earlier generations of stars. Despite its brightness the Arches Cluster cannot be seen with the naked eye. The visible light from the cluster is completely obscured by gigantic clouds of dust in this region. To make the cluster visible astronomers have to use detectors which can collect light from the X-ray, infrared, and radio bands, as these wavelengths can pass through the dust clouds. This observation shows the Arches Cluster in the infrared and demonstrates the leap in Hubble’s performance since its 1999 image of same object.
This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way. It is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), close to the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is, like its neighbour the Quintuplet Cluster, a fairly young astronomical object at between two and four million years old. The Arches cluster is so dense that in a region with a radius equal to the distance between the Sun and its nearest star there would be over 100 000 stars! At least 150 stars within the cluster are among the brightest ever discovered in the the Milky Way. These stars are so bright and massive, that they will burn their fuel within a short time, on a cosmological scale, just a few million years, and die in spectacular supernova explosions. Due to the short lifetime of the stars in the cluster, the gas between the stars contains an unusually high amount of heavier elements, which were produced by earlier generations of stars. Despite its brightness the Arches Cluster cannot be seen with the naked eye. The visible light from the cluster is completely obscured by gigantic clouds of dust in this region. To make the cluster visible astronomers have to use detectors which can collect light from the X-ray, infrared, and radio bands, as these wavelengths can pass through the dust clouds. This observation shows the Arches Cluster in the infrared and demonstrates the leap in Hubble’s performance since its 1999 image of same object.*

It is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt, though that happens when we live down to one another’s expectations. It is more that we have contempt for the familiar. We don’t pay attention to the things we think we know, and we do not like for them to surprise us.

Jesus could show these people nothing. No great miracles, no signs of great power—he could only heal a few of the sick, this Gospel says. It was perhaps the most he could do and not push the boundaries of their expectations.

He was amazed.

It was not that God among men had no power. It was that men stood beside God and did not wish to see. If the humanity in Jesus could offend them, imagine what the God in him could accomplish.

And so Jesus called the twelve to him, the dozen closest followers, all likewise known to the people who had begun to resent him. He sent them away. He sent them out, scattering like dust, and gave them no provisions except some kind of power to face the evil that they would encounter.

Jesus told them to stay with those who would accept them, but to leave behind the ones who would not. “Shake the dust off your feet as a witness,” Jesus told them.

Leave the dust as a witness, he said, a sign. To use the exact word chosen in the Gospel, the dust beneath their feet would be a martyr.

The dust beneath our feet, like we ourselves, came from the ancient galaxies of space, the hearts of a billion suns. One man sees only dust where the next sees the stuff of stars.

Dust Plume Over Red Sea
Dust Plume. This astronaut photograph acquired on June 22, 2013 provides a panoramic view of most of the length of the Red Sea. The northernmost end, the Gulf of Suez, is just visible at the top center of the image and is fully 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) in ground distance from the International Space Station (ISS). The Nile River snakes its way northward through the Sahara Desert on the left. Much closer to the camera—but still more than 550 kilometers (340 miles) from the ISS—is a dust plume surging out over the Red Sea and reaching most of the way to Saudi Arabia. The point source of this plume is the delta of the southern Egyptian river Khor Baraka.*

We may read this Gospel and walk away thinking that Jesus meant to leave those small minded and resentful people to choke on their own dust. We may also pay attention to the word, martyr, that gives a purpose to the dust, calling on the most ordinary thing in that dry land to remain forever as a witness to the most extraordinary presence of God.

The people around us are seldom brilliant and marvelous. Most of them, most of us, are the poor, the ordinary, the small minded and the resentful. We are as unremarkable as the dust beneath our feet, as numerous and as anonymous as the sand of a desert.

If the Gospel is true, God’s love must be without end. We are nothing special. We are only bits of animated dust, specks of sand, and yet the light of the stars makes us shine.

This galaxy goes by the name of ESO 162-17 and is located about 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Carina. At first glance this image seems like a fairly standard picture of a galaxy with dark patches of dust and bright patches of young, blue stars. However, a closer look reveals several peculiar features. Firstly, ESO 162-17 is what is known as a peculiar galaxy — a galaxy that has gone through interactions with its cosmic neighbours, resulting in an unusual amount of dust and gas, an irregular shape, or a strange composition. Secondly, on 23 February 2010 astronomers observed the supernova known as SN 2010ae nestled within this galaxy. The supernova belongs to a recently discovered class of supernovae called Type Iax supernovae. This class of objects is related to the better known Type-Ia supernovae. Type Ia supernovae result when a white dwarf accumulates enough mass either from a companion or, rarely, through collision with another white dwarf, to initiate a catastrophic collapse followed by a spectacular explosion as a supernova.  Type Iax supernovae also involve a white dwarf as the central star, but in this case it may survive the event. Type Iax supernovae are much fainter and rarer than Type Ia supernovae, and their exact mechanism is still a matter of open debate. The rather beautiful four-pointed shape of foreground stars distributed around ESO 162-17 also draws the eye. This is an optical effect introduced as the incoming light is diffracted by the four struts that support the Hubble Space Telescope’s small secondary mirror.
This galaxy goes by the name of ESO 162-17 and is located about 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Carina. At first glance this image seems like a fairly standard picture of a galaxy with dark patches of dust and bright patches of young, blue stars. However, a closer look reveals several peculiar features. Firstly, ESO 162-17 is what is known as a peculiar galaxy — a galaxy that has gone through interactions with its cosmic neighbours, resulting in an unusual amount of dust and gas, an irregular shape, or a strange composition. Secondly, on 23 February 2010 astronomers observed the supernova known as SN 2010ae nestled within this galaxy. The supernova belongs to a recently discovered class of supernovae called Type Iax supernovae. This class of objects is related to the better known Type-Ia supernovae. Type Ia supernovae result when a white dwarf accumulates enough mass either from a companion or, rarely, through collision with another white dwarf, to initiate a catastrophic collapse followed by a spectacular explosion as a supernova.  Type Iax supernovae also involve a white dwarf as the central star, but in this case it may survive the event. Type Iax supernovae are much fainter and rarer than Type Ia supernovae, and their exact mechanism is still a matter of open debate. The rather beautiful four-pointed shape of foreground stars distributed around ESO 162-17 also draws the eye. This is an optical effect introduced as the incoming light is diffracted by the four struts that support the Hubble Space Telescope’s small secondary mirror.*

* Credit to NASA.gov for the marvelous images and the accompanying captions that you see in this post. If you have not visited the NASA.gov website, you should! Amazing work by entirely non-ordinary people. —C R Taylor