The Wired Word

Total Eclipse of the Sun Happens August 21
The Wired Word for the Week of August 20, 2017

In the News

A total eclipse of the sun by the moon will occur on Monday, August 21, 2017, and is expected to be visible to some degree everywhere in the United States.

Although a total solar eclipse -- when the moon passes in front of the sun and blocks its light -- happens somewhere in the world every year or two, this year's occurrence is special for Americans in that it is the first to happen over the continental United States since 1979 and the first one since 1918 to run from coast to coast.

Many other solar eclipses aren't readily seen because they occur over oceans, isolated deserts, remote mountain ranges or war zones. But the shadow of this one will glide across a strip about 2500 miles long and 75 miles wide, running from Lincoln Beach, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina, and passing through portions of 14 states. This area is called the "path of totality," and those who witness the eclipse from within that area will have the fullest view of it. Observers outside this path -- everyone in North America plus parts of South America, Africa and Europe -- will be able to see at least a partial solar eclipse. The longest duration will be near Carbondale, Illinois, where the sun will be completely covered for two minutes and 40 seconds.

Regardless of where one is viewing from, looking directly at the eclipse with the unprotected eye can cause severe and permanent eye damage. There are special glasses available that can be used safely, but regular sunglasses are insufficient and viewing it through a regular camera lens is also dangerous to the eye. Solar lenses can be used. The glasses are becoming hard to find as demand has increased. Some public libraries have them available for use by patrons.  

If you use such glasses, ensure that they transmit less than 0.00032 (0.032 percent) of visible light (have a density of 3.5 or greater). Our physicist consultant who works with lasers plays it extra safe: he usually observes using a pinhole imager.)

Weather events, cloudiness and forest fire smoke could hinder watching the event, as could traffic in optimum viewing locations.

More on this story can be found at these links:

Eclipse: Who? What? Where? When? and How? NASA 
Why Scientists Are So Excited About This Solar Eclipse. NBCNews

Applying the News Story

Essentially,  the moon's role is to reflect the light of the sun. It has no light of its own. So there is a sense in which during a solar eclipse, the moon is going rogue, where instead of reflecting the light of the sun, it is blocking it.

Can this be a metaphor for discipleship? Isn't the role of the disciple to reflect the master's light, and certainly not to block it?

The Big Questions

1. Do celestial events such as eclipses have any meaning beyond the movement of the planetary system? If so, how does one determine the meaning?

2. In what ways do Christians sometimes eclipse the Lord's light? In what ways have you personally ever done so?

3. Into what place of darkness do you have the opportunity to reflect the light of Christ? How do you do so?

4. Why do some people view a grand event in nature and see only the wonder of nature while other people view the same event and see the wonder of God? What changes one's perception?

5. When unusual events in nature can be scientifically explained, does that make it more difficult to hear a divine message in them? Why or why not? In how many different ways does God reveal himself?  Discuss the claim by the great astronomer Johannes Kepler, who declared that science was "thinking God's thoughts after him."

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your deliberation:

Luke 23:44-45
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. (For context, read 23:44-49.)

This passage is from Luke's narration of Jesus' death on the cross, and many Bible scholars believe it is saying that at the time Jesus died, a solar eclipse occurred. In fact, the translators of the New American Bible were so confident that the verse was referring to an eclipse that they rendered these verses, "It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun."

NASA maps charting the paths of some 5,000 years' worth of solar eclipses -- from 2000 B.C. to 3000 A.D. -- do, indeed, chart eight total solar eclipses and a host of annular and partial eclipses between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D. (the probable time span during which Jesus' crucifixion occurred), so from that perspective, a solar eclipse during Jesus' death is possible.

However, if Jesus died anywhere near the time the Bible says, no solar eclipse would have occurred. All the gospels agree that his crucifixion occurred at Passover. Astronomically, Passover occurs when there is a full moon, meaning when the moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun and thus is fully illuminated by the sun's rays. A partial or total solar eclipse, meanwhile, occurs only with a new moon, defined as the phase when the moon is passing between the Earth and the sun, which is why it blocks the sun's rays. Thus, matching a solar eclipse to any event during Passover is a stretch.

Question: It is possible that the sun's light was darkened by some other event, such as a dust storm or a direct miracle, but more usefully, what do you suppose Luke was trying to convey by the inclusion of this detail in the crucifixion story? Does tying a biblical event to a historical event make it more "real"?

Amos 8:9
On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. (For context, read 8:1-11.)

In the Old Testament, the darkening of the sun was often considered a sign of judgment associated with "the day of the Lord," a time of divine judgment (see Isaiah 13:9-10; Ezekiel 32:7; Joel 2:31; as well as the verse above).

This linkage of darkening of the sun to judgment is also present in the New Testament (see, for example, Matthew 24:29; Acts 2:20; Revelation 6:12.)

Questions: In the biblical era, astronomical events were not understood from a scientific perspective, so the  darkening of the sun seemed foreboding and indicative of doom. But we live in an era when scientific explanations for such events are readily available on our smartphones. So, what, if any, religious significance ought we attach to solar eclipses today? What. if anything, does this present eclipse symbolize for you?

Some ministers have been preaching about the significance of so-called "red moons" in recent years, tying these to the end of the world. These too are natural events that are predictable by science. Can a scientific event have theological significance?

Isaiah 30:26
Moreover the light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of seven days, on the day when the LORD binds up the injuries of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow. (For context, read 30:18-26.)

In contrast to the Old Testament view that a darkening of the sun portended some awful judgment, here, the coming of the Lord with healing for his people is pictured as the light of the sun, times seven.

Question: Why was God often pictured in the Bible as light?

John 8:12
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." (For context read 8:2-20.)

The scribes and the Pharisees place before Jesus a woman caught in adultery, and they ask him a "gotcha" question: "Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" (v. 5). They say this to test him, so as to have some charge to bring against him. Jesus responds by saying, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (v. 7). And they slink away, one by one.

Jesus then describes himself as "the light of the world." He truly is the Light, because he illuminates each and every situation of darkness that human beings can face. He shows leadership by reframing questions and giving us new solutions to old problems. Instead of getting caught in "gotcha" traps, he shines his divine light on problems and shows us a path that we never would have seen without him.

The Celtic cross includes a circle over the point where the horizontal and vertical beams meet. Since Celts looked on the sun as the source of all life, it seemed natural to associate it with the cross, which Christians understand as tied to the source of all life as well.

Questions: What does Jesus mean by "light" and "darkness"? How is God present in the life-giving light of the sun? How is God present in the darkness, especially in the darkness associated with the death of Jesus?

John 1:6-9
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (For context, read 1:6-27.)

The gospel writer is here telling us that John the Baptist was the "moon" to Jesus' "sun."

In effect, John himself made the same statement when asked if he was the Messiah. Read his reply in John 1:20-23, where John says he is "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness."

Further on in this gospel, John, referring to Jesus, also said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30).

Questions: In what ways does John serve as a model for discipleship? Where do you think the light of God shines most brightly in today's society? Are there situations where the light of God seems to be eclipsed?

Did John eclipse Jesus in any way? Did the cross eclipse Jesus? Why or why not?

For Further Deliberation

1. What, if anything, is the difference between sharing the light of Christ and reflecting the light of Christ?

2. God has created everything and created the orderliness of everything in the universe. Does it mean anything that eclipses are infrequent and that so few people are able to personally view an eclipse?  

3. We typically use the term "eclipsed" to mean an action has happened that overtook something or someone. We are all eclipsed by God, and that is positive. Some people fear the eclipse as a bad omen. How do we see evidence of the eclipse of our soul as a good thing?

4. Some dog owners have reported that during previous eclipses, their dogs paced the floor or otherwise acted oddly. What do you make of that? Also, we have a TWW team member who was keeping bees in the 1990s. When an eclipse occurred, he noticed that the bees seemed to fall asleep. They simply ceased to do work until the eclipse ended. Bees see in the ultraviolet range so that they are able to navigate by the sun on a cloudy day, but, says our team member, "I was fascinated as a beekeeper that the bees evidently were blinded into thinking the sun had set."

Responding to the News

This is a good time to consider what kind of a "mirror" or "reflector" you are of Jesus' light.

Prayer

O God, thank you for the glory of creation and the inspiration the workings of creation bring us. Thank you for speaking to us in the glorious, in the mundane and in your Word. Help us to listen and respond. In Jesus' name. Amen.