Glory eclipsed

The forecasts say the sky will be clear midday tomorrow, and we hope there are no heavy clouds anywhere in Middle Tennessee that could move in last minute and ruin the moment. Thousands of us will stand outside, our faces turned to the sky, sporting dark glasses with cardboard frames, waiting to “see the sun slowly but inexorably consumed.”

A dark circle will slide over it, and the air will turn colder in an instant, as though someone had opened an Earth-sized freezer door. Warm air will stop rising from the ground and the wind will change direction, all while the [lunar shadow] sweeps the land, making the sky so dark that stars emerge. Birds will hasten back to their roosts. At the moment of total eclipse, the sun will darken entirely, leaving only a halo of fire.[1]

Annie Dillard described a total eclipse decades ago, writing

Abruptly, it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed.[2]

We know what to expect, it’s been calculated down to the fraction of a second for every GPS location on a wide swath of land stretching from the Oregon to the South Carolina coast, we know exactly when and where to expect one of the great spectacles in this part of our galaxy, but we don’t really know what to expect. Will it be beautiful? Will it be terrifying? Both at the same time, perhaps?

In ancient China, solar eclipses were especially feared; it was thought that a great dragon was trying to devour the sun. Occurrences in the sky were believed to directly mirror those on earth, and the emperor’s power rested entirely on his status as the Son of Heaven. He was most interested in getting accurate predictions of eclipse events so that preparations could be made for people to gather and produce great noise and commotion, banging on pots and pans and drums to frighten away the dragon. In Chinese, the term for solar eclipse, rishi 日食 ends with the character shi, “to eat.”[3] You can imagine the emperor’s relief when the dragon didn’t swallow and eat the sun, but spit it out on account of the people’s fearsome noise. Better to sit on the throne with a little dragon drool on the sleeves of the imperial robe than not to sit there at all…

The cosmic spectacle of a total eclipse has invited, perhaps demanded, interpretation ever since our ancestors first looked up in wonder and in terror. The English word eclipse comes from the Greek ἔκλειψις, meaning disappearance, abandonment, a word tapping into our deepest fear. The perfect Sun-Moon-Earth alignment is an extraordinary cosmic coincidence. “The tiny, humdrum moon” is 400 times smaller than “the gigantic, raging sun,” but it covers the sun’s disc because it is 400 times closer to the Earth.[4] And that is, of course, a wonderful metaphor. A tiny chunk of rock blocking the glorious, life-giving sun around whose gravity, light and warmth just about everything revolves we know and hold dear, including ourselves. A tiny chunk of rock turning day into night like hatred and violence eclipsing love and justice. Like hatred and violence looking big enough to block love and justice, when in truth they are mere shadows, nothing but temporary negations with no substance of their own. The haters, the supremacists, the sowers of fear and death look so big, when all they can do is eclipse for a brief moment that which sustains life. They have already lost.

In the gospel of Luke, the metaphor of the eclipse is used to describe the dread and abandonment of Jesus’ death on the cross:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light was eclipsed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.[5]

We did our worst, condemning and executing the author of life, but God’s love and mercy shine brighter: Jesus was raised from the dead and we are awake with hope. We are meant to reflect nothing but the glory of God and we will, because God is faithful.

“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” says Jesus. He is teaching in a context where rules about food and rituals of purification are seen as essential to properly maintain boundaries between God’s people and pagans. And he tells the crowds not to worry too much about what they put into their mouth, but to pay close attention to what comes out: to the words they use, to the topics they address, to the situations in which they speak up or choose to remain silent. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles,” he teaches the disciples. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

And then they cross into the territory of Sidon and Tyre. They cross from the land where ‘almost everybody is one of us’ to the land where ‘almost everybody is one of them;’ where they speak with foreign accents, follow foreign customs, eat foreign food, and worship foreign deities it’s hard to imagine a place more “outside” than this. And there this woman draws near and speaks to him, crossing line after line of what’s considered lady-like and appropriate. We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she does. We know what having a sick child can do to a parent. The barriers between her and the man from Nazareth are high, barriers of custom, language, ethnicity and religion, but she crosses every one of them, out of love for her child. She shouts without any restraint, begging Jesus to free her daughter from the demon that’s tormenting her. And he doesn’t answer her. It’s like she’s invisible, she’s not even there. The disciples are clearly embarrassed by the scene and they urge him to send her away.

Finally he answers. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. What then is he doing so far outside the house of Israel? Why is he there if he wasn’t sent there? By now she is kneeling before him and she begs him, “Lord, help me.”

How long has it been since he taught the disciples, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles”? He opens his mouth, and what comes out is, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Don’t you wish Matthew had edited this passage to have one of the disciples say this rather than Jesus? Dividing the world into children and dogs and telling the mother that she and her daughter belonged to the latter? I can’t help but hear echoes of the hateful chants they bawled in the streets of Charlottesville. You. Will not. Replace us. You. Will not. Replace us. What’s to keep the children, seated around the table, well-fed and happy, from making sure that those whom they have learned to regard as dogs stay where they belong, under the table?

Many have wrestled with this scene, trying to reconcile the Jesus they thought they knew with the man who shows no compassion for this mother and her daughter, but rather contempt. Some have suggested that he didn’t really mean it, that the whole scene is merely a test of the woman’s resolve. Others have suggested that Jesus wasn’t testing the woman’s but the disciples’ faith, that he is waiting for one of them, just one to stand with her and say, “Lord, have mercy.” Well, if that’s what’s going on here, count me in. I’m standing with her.

Throwing the bread to the dogs would be wrong, Jesus told the woman, since it was the children’s bread. And now she responds with great calm, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” What she asks of him won’t take away anything from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Crumbs of mercy will be plenty to save her child. He had just fed 5,000 people with a lunch that looked like nothing to his disciples, and when all had eaten and were full, there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. She has been paying attention; she knows that there is more than enough for all: more than enough bread, more than enough power to heal, more than enough love. Now Jesus finally sounds like himself again. “Woman, great is your faith!” he says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Division, prejudice, and fear have been our lot for as long as any of us can remember, and the demons of bigotry, white supremacy and loveless self-assertion have long shackled and bound us but they can only eclipse for a moment the glory we are meant to reflect and the fullness of life for which we were made; they are no match for the fearless, persistent love of this mother, no match for the liberating and healing mercy of God.

Mark Twain wrote in 1869,

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of[humans] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.[6]

Travel is not just about going to far away places. It’s about getting out of our little corners. It’s about crossing lines of familiarity and custom. It’s about encountering God on the other side.

 

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/an-artists-view-of-an-eclipse/498548/

[2] Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” in Teaching a Stone to Talk.

[3] http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects/eclipses-art/total-solar-eclipse-china-japan-and-korea

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/an-artists-view-of-an-eclipse/498548/

[5] Luke 23:44-45 ἐκλιπόντος

[6] The Innocents Abroad

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