A rare event happened last month. There was a total eclipse of the sun right across North America. Solar eclipses happen about three times a year but total eclipses only take place about once every eighteen months and are often in out-of-the-way places and usually very brief. In any given place they only recur about every four hundred years. On this occasion, because the eclipse was visible right across the United States, it was possible to get continuous pictures of it for an hour and a half. This is important because an eclipse can provide important scientific information and the longer it can be watched the more information may be forthcoming. For example photographs taken during a total solar eclipse on 29th May 1919 helped to confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
The scientific study of eclipses was first carried out by the Chinese in around the 6th century BC and astronomers began to be able to predict future eclipses from that time. Before that astronomers were more or less ‘in the dark’ and unfortunately some of them suffered for it. Legend has it that King Zhong Kang had two astronomers beheaded for failing to predict an eclipse in 4000 BC!
Eclipses have given rise to many myths throughout history and all over the world. “If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears, with few exceptions, is it’s always a disruption of the established order,” said E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. To primitive people a disruption to the established order is cause for fear, “The gods are angry” being a typical interpretation. In more developed cultures it is a reason for reflection on the wonders and mysteries of nature. “Eclipses are a chance to see the universe working,” says Krupp. “It’s the solar system doing its thing right before your eyes and it’s a deep and personal pleasure.”
Reaction to eclipses reflects the deep importance to human beings of light and darkness. Throughout our history and still today, light has represented good and darkness evil. Think of all the references in the New Testament to light: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:16); “To give light to them that sit in darkness” (Luke 1:79); “And the light shineth in darkness” (John 1:5); “[John the Baptist] was not that light but was sent to bear witness of that light” (St John’s gospel 1:8); “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12); “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Similarly darkness represents evil, most notably at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45). The ‘light of the world’ was dead.
In our day we use darkness to describe bad things that happen to us, for example, “I went through a really dark period”. People have described depression as the ‘black dog’ for centuries, most famously Sir Winston Churchill. When we suffer a bereavement we go through a time of ‘darkness’ when nothing seems to have meaning, when light and joy have gone out of life, when our everyday world lacks colour and warmth, when we don’t hear the birds sing, when there’s a “disruption of the established order” of our lives. As is so often the case though, our experiences reflect natural phenomena. Our energy fluctuates as the tides flow in and out; our moods reflect the seasons; national temperaments reflect the climate of the nation concerned (consider the difference in temperament between people in the ‘warm’ Mediterranean countries and those in the ‘cold’ north of Europe); grief from the loss of a loved one reflects the eclipse of the light of the sun. But we should remember that the eclipse passes. Grief or depression will not pass in seven minutes or even an hour and a half but pass it will because that is nature’s way and we are creatures of nature. The “darkness over all the land” that occurred when Jesus died lasted three hours. His death lasted three days. An eclipse is a symbol of hope.