Eclipse and the end of the world

Sister Judith Sutera | August 23, 2017

For those who witnessed Monday’s eclipse, it was a truly unusual and profound experience. We are in awe of the great and uncontrolled power of nature, whether or not we believe in the hand of a God who moves all creation.

For those who do believe in a force beyond the forces, it is often a temptation to see God as directly responsible, especially when something bad happens. From the Great Flood to Sodom and Gomorrah, physical events were seen as coming from an angry God – a normal response from people who didn’t understand the movements of the natural world. The Greeks blamed the gods, too. Primitive cultures, at the mercy of forces like volcanoes, naturally assumed there was a god in the volcano that was displeased.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the loss of light was a sign of the day of reckoning. “Will not the day of the Lord be darkness and not light – pitch-dark without a ray of brightness?” (Amos 5:20), and “’It will come about in that day,’ declares the Lord God, ‘That I will make the sun go down at noon and make the earth dark in broad daylight,’” (Amos 8:9). Joel 2:31 says “The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”

Jesus repeats these warnings: “After the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened…” (Mt. 24:29, Mk. 13:24). Revelation picks up: “… the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair,” (Rev. 6:12) and “… a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were struck, so that a third of them would be darkened and the day would not shine…” (Rev. 8:12). It’s no wonder that earlier people, with no knowledge of eclipses, would have thought the world was ending when they saw what we experienced as a natural wonder and a celebration. Try to imagine if, instead of having months of information and preparation, and even glasses to see the details, you were a medieval peasant, just going about your business, when suddenly the birds stopped singing, the light began to disappear, and you recalled the many times you had heard the warnings in church.

Columbus, who as a navigator always studied his star charts, knew there was going to be an eclipse of the moon on a certain night in 1503. Stranded on an island with increasingly hostile natives, he told the chief that God was unhappy with them for not feeding the sailors and would show his anger in three days. When the moon began to go dark, they were terrified. Columbus promised to pray and, watching the time with his hourglass, told them God was appeased and the light would soon return. It definitely worked.

Already in the time of Muhammed, Arabic culture had great scientific knowledge. When his son died on the day of a solar eclipse around the year 630, people thought it a sign of sadness. But the prophet said, “The sun and the moon are two signs amongst the signs of Allah. They do not eclipse because of someone’s death or life. So when you see them, invoke Allah and pray till the eclipse is clear.” To this day, Muslims offer special prayers to God during eclipses.

The world didn’t end Monday, but it can be a reminder and sign for us. Sometimes our lives can be plunged into darkness, even as suddenly as the sun disappeared. Like the sun, God is always there, just hidden behind something. We saw the faintest light around the edges and gradually the slivers turned again to full light.