What is the Meaning of the Eclipse?

Let’s do something timely, shall we?
Today, the entire continental United States will have access to a total solar eclipse for the first time in (according to Wikipedia) nearly 100 years. I know that at my house, everyone is brimming with excitement and prayers for a cloud-free day.
Though the science of such phenomena is now understood to the point of being predictable (click here for a schedule for eclipses running well into the next century), the darkening of the sun in the middle of the day still has the power to touch us in a more mysterious, superstitious or even religious place. Somewhere deep within our psyche is encoded the desire to find meaning in the machinations of the heavens.
The bible records two celestial occurrences with particular signifignace to Christians. The first is the so-called Star of Bethlem, which led the Wisemen to the place of Jesus’ birth. The second is the sun “darkening at midday” in seeming tribute to the death of Jesus on Good Friday.
In both cases, the intent of the Biblical story-teller is clear, the life of the Messiah is an event of literally cosmic importance. The universe itself witnesses to the power, the magesty and the profundity of the the Christ. Stellar conjunctions and solar eclipses carried the force of divine meaning in ancient cultures. They were powerful signs and portens in many religious traditions. It is unsurprising that they would show up in the core stories of the Christian faith.
Understanding the general meaning of the eclipse doesn’t answer the whole question, though. In fact, when the ancient symbolic mystery is laid beside the current scientific understanding, the notion of meaning actually splits into several parts each of which highlighting a broader quandary of faith.
First, did the stories in the Bible really happen in the way that they are described? This is a question about the veracity of Scripture and the trustworthiness of the writers and source material. Can the Bible be believed? Did things really happen this way?
Second, If things happened the way they appear to in the Bible, were the cosmic events described of a regular (i.e. scientifically predictable and understandable) or peculiar (i.e. miraculous) occurance? This is a question of theodicy or God’s justice. Does God work in the universe in a predictable and understandable way? Can God be understood? Can he be trusted?
Finally, and particularly if the answer to the last question was ‘miraculous’, what meaning, or potential meaning does any subsequent cosmic even have? Should we look to the heavens this week with awe and expectation? Or, fear and foreboding? Or, the confidence that we know exactly what’s going on in the world around us?
Questions like these make for a pretty thorough evaluation of one’s stand on issues of faith in general. Not so much a “litmus test” of whether or not one is a faithful person, but rather something more like a “Cosmo quiz” for what kind of faith makes the most sense to you. As we talk about time and again in this blog, faith is an activity of humans. It comes in as many shades and colors and textures as humans do. Thus, the issue is rarely a binary question of faith or doubt, belief or unbelief, orthodoxy or heresy. But, a more textured evaluation of whether or not the faith you have is fitting to your tradition, supportive of your life, worth sharing or even capable of being shared.
Enjoy the eclipse, friends. Opportunities like this come only several times in a life. But while youre taking time to admire the majesty and the grandeur of the created order, be aware of how your understanding of what’s going on affects your faith. Oh, and don’t stare at the sun.

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