It is not exactly the celestial event of a lifetime – after all, a total solar eclipse occurs somewhere in the world about every 18 months – but the total darkening of the sun by the moon’s shadow on Monday, Aug. 21, in a diagonal swath of the United States from Oregon through the Midwest to the sand dunes off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina – will bring with it an American flair for entrepreneurship and excess.
Thousands of Americans have made travel plans to experience the creeping darkness, from sunny skies to partly cloudy to gloaming to total blackout for about eight minutes. Hotel rooms along the path of the silent, astronomical shadow are booked solid.
In New Orleans, located about 675 miles south of the soon-to-be-darkened Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the eclipse will be about 70 percent visible, which, we in south Louisiana must count as a cosmic sign of God’s presence in our midst.
Could you imagine a New Orleans driver doing 95 mph in the left lane of I-10 while chatting on the cell phone during Dark Zero?
Because they are so beyond the normal pattern of our human existence, solar eclipses are compelling and perhaps a bit frightening. So, let’s go back 2,000 years, when three of the four Gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark and Luke – included the meteorological observation that the earth grew dark as Jesus experienced his agony and death on the cross.
The accounts of Matthew and Mark are nearly identical. Mark 15:33 says: “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.” And Matthew 27:45 says: “From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.”
Luke (23:44) adds a little Nash Roberts to the accounts in Matthew and Mark: “It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun.”
John, which biblical scholars believe was written later than the other three Gospels, makes no reference to darkness surrounding Jesus’ death.
Dr. Brant Pitre, one of the country’s foremost biblical scholars who teaches at Notre Dame Seminary, said there is no official Catholic teaching about how to interpret the passages about the eclipse or the darkening of the sun.
“Catholics are free to debate the significance of that event – and that’s important,” Pitre said. “The church has a lot of official teachings, but this isn’t one of them.”
The cultural context of first-century Jews also is important when reading and interpreting these passages, Pitre said.
“In the Old Testament, oftentimes eclipses or the darkening of the sun were interpreted as signs of divine judgment,” Pitre said.
For example, in the Book of Joel (2:2), the prophet warns about the impending “Day of the Lord”: “Yes, it approaches, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds! Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army!” In verse 10, Joel adds: “Before them the earth trembles; the heavens shake; sun and moon are darkened, and the stars withhold their brightness.”
“In other words, the darkening of the sun was associated with the ‘Day of the Lord,’” Pitre said. “It was a day of judgment, but also a day of salvation. When Christ is crucified, the darkening of the sun symbolizes both judgment and salvation. We have the death of the Son of God, who bore the sins of the world, but it is also the day of salvation and the beginning of the new covenant. The cross is going to be the way to that day of salvation.”
The fact that John, unlike the three Gospels that were written earlier, makes no mention of the skies darkening “doesn’t really mean anything,” Pitre said.
“John will often not mention things because he assumes his readers know that already from the Synoptic, earlier Gospels,” Pitre said.
“Broadly speaking, in the ancient world, cosmic signs like an eclipse, whether of the moon of the sun, or the appearance of a comet were frequently regarded as an omen that would mark a major change in history,” Pitre said. “So, sometimes, a comet or a star would be associated with the birth of a new king. There is the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth, where the wise men from the East interpret the appearance of the star as a sign of the birth of the king of the Jews.”
Josephus, a first century Jewish writer, interpreted cosmic signs as “omens of the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D.,” Pitre said.
What the Gospel accounts show, given the Jewish context of the time, Pitre said, is that “Jesus’ death has incredible significance, because his death isn’t just like the death of another individual – he’s not just one more man. It is the death of the old order and the beginning of a new creation. His death put an end to the old world of death and sin, and his resurrection ushers in the new world of the new covenant that Jews were waiting for.”
Viewed through a strict meteorological lens, a solar eclipse cannot occur naturally on or near Passover. A solar eclipse can happen only during a new moon, and Passover is timed to occur after a full moon.
Pitre said the exact date of Jesus’ death can’t be exactly computed because the Jews in Jesus’ time used agricultural signs to set the date of Passover rather than astronomical signs.
“They did it by observation and agriculture,” Pitre said. “If they had a long winter and the lambs weren’t ready, they could add a day in or sometimes a whole month. The lambs had to be old enough and the wheat had to be tall enough to harvest. There’s no way to know if there was a short winter or a long winter the year Jesus died.”
Pitre’s advice to Catholics – and to those chasing the Aug. 21 eclipse – is not to worry about the end of the world.
“Throughout history, there have always been worries and anxieties about whether or not these cosmic signs point to the end of the world,” Pitre said. “I always tell students that Jesus was very clear that no one knows the day or the hour. Our job is to be prepared – whenever the end comes.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.