An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when one object in the sky moves into the shadow of another.
The term is most often used to describe either a solar eclipse (when the moon’s shadow crosses Earth’s surface) or a lunar eclipse (when the moon moves into the shadow of Earth).
Everyone in the continental U.S. will see at least a partial eclipse on Aug. 21.
The zone of totality runs through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Nearly 28 million Americans live within 60 miles of the path.
Where will you be for the total solar eclipse? Are you in the zone? Do you have family or friends showing up on your doorstep from other parts of the country, from places not in the zone of totality?
Will you go out into your own backyard, gather with friends for an eclipse party, or drive just west or south to a spot where the eclipse will be total?
The eclipse itself is slightly more than two minutes long with a long creeping shadow that both precedes and follows the main event.
Even though St. Louis where I live is just outside the zone of totality, it will be near dark like dusk and the temperature will drop measurably.
The dogs may start barking and the birds may stop flying – or maybe it’s the opposite where the dogs will fly and the birds will bark. No matter, even a partial eclipse will be a powerful display of nature’s vast capabilities.
This is the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. in 38 years.
For many, this is a purely physical, scientifically understood, astral phenomenon that occurs whenever our sunlight is blocked by a third celestial body (the moon).
As the result of planets, suns and moons always coursing through space in their orbits, a total solar (or lunar) eclipse is not at all infrequent, except when you need a third body to serve as the projector screen of the shadow that’s cast.
In other words, the show is always playing even if there’s no one in the theater to see it.
The last total solar eclipse for St. Louis occurred in 1442. Interestingly, the next total solar eclipse will cross just north of the Missouri Boot Heel in 2024.
The path of the 2017 and 2024 eclipses will intersect on the Illinois side just east of the Mississippi River, making it the one singular double-site, two total solar eclipses in the short span of seven years.
I don’t know the odds of that happening, but it would be astronomical, don’t you think?
What does it mean? For some Christians, this occurrence is wrought with spiritual meaning as there are faithful believers who interpret these “signs and wonders” as being filled with God’s messaging us with purpose.
But what message would that be? For many, it’s a sign laden with God’s warning to repent. I don’t know of many prophets who take a more hopeful approach, and instead see it as a sign of God’s blessing and approval. Prophets aren’t typically known for being optimists.
To be sure, the Bible has several accounts of the sun darkening for special events, occurrences we would suggest as descriptions of a solar eclipse.
Remember that on the afternoon Jesus was crucified, darkness fell upon Golgotha.
The ninth plague imposed upon the Egyptians came when Moses raised his hands to the heavens and total darkness descended upon the Egyptians. The Jews had their own light, but not the Egyptians.
In the Revelation, the sun will go dark as one of the signs to accompany the tribulation.
Is a form of faith that makes meaning of such astral phenomena adequate for the 21st century or is it a sign of some underlying pre-scientific ancient religion that reads meaning into every shift and move in the physical world?
Christians tend to be doomsday prophets that interpret these kinds of events as signs of God’s judgment. Other belief systems think differently.
Ancient China believed that dragons were devouring the sun. In Czechoslovakia, they believed that ice giants, bitter enemies of the sun were conquering it. The Romans believed that the sun had been poisoned and was dying.
The yogists and transcendentalists of India believe at the time of an eclipse, people are more likely to be affected by their departed ancestors who create problems in their descendants’ lives resulting in lethargy, tiredness or sickness.
At the psychological level, there are excess emotional and negative thoughts, especially about spiritual practice. They teach that one should avoid doing things like sleeping, going to the toilet, eating food or having sexual intercourse as they are affected by departed ancestors and ghosts.
Baptize the 2017 eclipse with some meaning if you wish, or simply pause in your schedule, get a pair of eclipse glasses so you don’t burn out the backside of your eyeballs, and enjoy!
The show will be fantastical and you should find a way to pay attention.
Keith D. Herron is senior minister at St. Lucas United Church of Christ in St. Louis. He is a former Baptist Center for Ethics board member.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).