Solar eclipse

August 20th, 2017

Deep twilight blue and strangely behaving animals

Should you happen to find yourself within the narrow strip of the United States that will be experiencing a total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21, you’re in for quite a show. When the moon moves between the earth and the sun, it will block the sun’s light and reveal its corona, or outer atmosphere. Reporting in the online magazine Seeker, Rick Fienberg describes the phenomenon this way: “The temperature goes down quite noticeably, the horizon is ringed by pretty sunset colors, the sky gets deep twilight blue, and bright stars and planets come out. Animals and birds behave strangely, like it’s the end of the day. It’s a whole constellation of things happening over the course of a few minutes.”

In a different age, the focus of this event would likely not have been the strange beauty of an eclipse but on the sense of portending disaster. Incans in pre-Columbian South America, who typically didn’t practice human sacrifice, would offer sacrifices following an eclipse. In ancient China, people banged on drums and pots during an eclipse to keep the dragon from eating the sun. In the Christian tradition, astronomical signs have been given great prominence as symbols for the coming day of the Lord or the return of Christ.

Modern astronomical science can help us understand how and why events like a solar eclipse happen, but mere understanding is rarely enough to satiate human curiosity. Simply knowing how and why an event occurs won’t prevent thousands of people from traveling to view the eclipse from inside its path of totality, the 70-mile swath in which the moon will totally obscure the sun. We sense that there’s something significant going on.

The basics of a solar eclipse

The basics of a solar eclipse are rather simple to explain. Since our planet has a single moon in orbit around it, and since the earth itself is in orbit around the sun, sometimes the moon will be directly between the sun and the earth. The consequence of this alignment is that the moon will block some of the sun’s light. Of course, the moon is much smaller than the sun, but its location makes all the difference. When everything lines up just right, which happens about once every 18 months, a total solar eclipse is visible from some place on the earth’s surface.

What makes the August 21 eclipse so notable is that the path of totality will stretch from Oregon to South Carolina. During this time, most of the United States will be able to experience at least a partial eclipse. The last time any part of the continental United States was within the umbra of a total solar eclipse was in 1979. Those in the path of totality will experience up to two minutes and forty seconds during which time the moon will completely block the sun.

Alex Young, a solar scientist with NASA, is expecting big crowds for the eclipse. “There just aren’t enough porta-potties in the world to handle this many people.” Fienberg encourages the journey, though. “You may think this is an astronomical event, but really it’s just a life event. It’s just a beautiful thing.”

Signs and symbols

According to Bruce Masse, formerly of the University of Hawaii and Los Alamos National Laboratory, solar eclipses are part of the “cosmology, art iconography, chiefly symbols, architecture, time reckoning, and religious and chiefly rituals” of virtually all early civilizations. Even after astronomers learned to predict when eclipses would occur around the second century A.D., eclipses retained great symbolic significance.

One prominent example of this occurred on February 12, 1831, when a total eclipse was visible throughout the southern and eastern United States. Nat Turner, an enslaved black preacher in Southampton County, Virginia, had been waiting on “signs in the heavens” that would signal God’s desire for him to begin a revolt, in which “the first should be last and the last should be first.” After seeing the February eclipse, Turner began to share plans for the revolt with a few compatriots.

The resulting insurrection, which took place on August 21, 1831, followed another atmospheric disturbance, a blue sun, that was probably caused by forest fires. Turner saw this as the final sign. The revolt was the largest slave uprising in U.S. history and led to the deaths of at least 55 white people and approximately four times as many African-Americans who died in reprisals.

Blood moons and end times speculations

You don’t have to look that far back to find examples of people finding significance in astronomical events. In 2014, speculation about the significance of four upcoming “blood moons” was fed by books from Christian pastors like Mark Hitchcock and John Hagee. Blood moons occur during partial lunar eclipses when the moon moves into the earth’s shadow. They’re not rare (about two lunar eclipses happen each year), but in books like Hagee’s Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change, the fact that all four fell on Jewish holidays was seen as a sign.

“I believe that the Heavens are God’s billboard, that He has been sending signals to Planet Earth but we just have not been picking them up,” Hagee said in a sermon reported by the San Antonio Express-News. In his book, Hagee suggested that this “tetrad” of blood moons would foreshadow a rapture of Christians into heaven, a major war involving Israel, and Christ’s return to earth.

Other Christian pastors lamented the effect of such books. Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was quoted as saying, “It can strike fear into people, which is so unnecessary and wrong.”

An unexpected encounter

While many Christians may agree that this kind of speculation and hysteria can lead us far astray, there’s a lot of biblical grounding for looking to the natural world as a sign. Jesus used everything from a fig tree to falling stars to urge his followers to stay alert for God’s coming. The prophet Joel talked about the coming day of the Lord as “a day of darkness and no light” (Joel 2:2). What are we to make of these things?

Recently, I was driving home after spending several days with my father. Following a heart attack, he was adjusting to the changes in his life, and I was reflecting on what they would mean for our family. On the highway ahead, I saw a car swerve suddenly. As the car moved, it revealed a large black object in the road. I assumed it must be a blown tire.

All around me cars began to slow and merge into the other lane. It was only as I neared the site that I noticed that the “tire” was actually a black bear, which was still staggering in the roadway, stunned by the impact with the car.

The image of the bear stayed with me for several days. I’m familiar with how often deer and other small animals are killed in collisions with cars, but bears are unusual. It was only later, as I was journaling about the bear, that I realized how much I was reflecting on my own family situation through the image of the bear. We, too, had been hit by something unexpected and were stunned. My feelings of compassion for the bear were also my feelings for my dad.

Sometimes things outside of us have the power to illuminate things going on within us. Eclipses and other natural phenomena can give us a new perspective on our place in the world and before God. They may also serve to displace us so that we see ourselves not as the center of our world, but as part of the larger story of God.

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