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