Darkness is coming over America. For the first time in nearly 100 years a total solar eclipse will be visible from coast to coast across the United States. Monday August 21st will be “The Great American Eclipse.” It will be an American-centric event. Millions of people are travelling to see the totality of the eclipse, in what one astronomer is saying will be “the most photographed, most shared, most tweeted event in human history.”
It should be a truly spectacular spectacle. In terms of pure celestial mechanics, the moon will be aligned between the earth and the sun, casting its shadow perfectly over the sun, for those along the path of totality. It is pure science, not supernatural.
Yet, the Great American Solar Eclipse is causing many to worry and speculate that it is a harbinger of the apocalypse. They fear God is casting judgment upon America, and this judgment will be reflected in nature by a blotting out of the sun. Many Christian blogs and books have been written on the eclipse, and blood moons, and other astronomical curiosities. These are not hard to find.
But, what to make of it?
Certainly, the United States has been going through a period of relative social and political unease. The social norms of the country are in flux and moving away from divine truths as promulgated by the Church. One need only look at judicial rulings on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex ‘marriage,’ and transgenderism to see the shift away from traditional Christian values. Sin ultimately does provoke judgment. But, does this mean we are now living in the apocalypse? Well, no. Does this mean we are living in deadly serious times? Yes, it does.
Jesus himself did warn us to observe signs in nature before his Second Coming saying, “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves.” (Lk. 21:25) This echoes the prophecy of Joel: “The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.” (Joel 3:15) These will be cataclysmic happenings and worldwide events. Does the Great American Solar Eclipse rise to this level? No, it does not.
That is not to say that the spiritual things are not reflected in the temporal world. Clearly they can be. God does give us signs in creation. At the exact time of Jesus’ Crucifixion, the sun did not give off its light. As scripture says, “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” (Mk. 15:33) So, there was darkness at the Crucifixion and there will be darkness at the Second Coming of Christ. And yes, there will be a brief darkness over the United States during the total solar eclipse on August 21st. Is this a sign from God specifically for America? Perhaps. Perhaps in the spiritual sense, that God does occasionally give us signs through nature. Perhaps God is trying to get our attention, and is calling us to repentance. Certainly sin has increased, and by way of analogy, the light of God is dimming in our society. Holiness is being eclipsed in America.
The last time a full coast-to-coast eclipse happened across the U.S. was June 8, 1918. This was not long after the last apparition of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal in 1917, and in the midst of the tragedy of World War I. Mary also warned that when you see “a night illumined by an unknown light” that God was about to punish the world for its sins. Most believe this was fulfilled on January 25, 1938 with a great aurora over much of Europe just before the start of World War II. This year is the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, which some attach special significance to its centenary. It was at the last apparition on October 13, 1917 that tens of thousands of people witnessed another solar event, in that case, the dramatic “Miracle of the Sun.”
It was Pope Pius XII who also witnessed the Miracle of the Sun phenomenon. In fact, he supposedly witnessed it four times, in the year 1950 when he was going to proclaim the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. He says he observed it on October 30th while walking in the Vatican gardens. He then witnessed it again on “the 31st of October and Nov. 1, the day of the definition of the dogma of the Assumption, and then again Nov. 8, and after that, no more.” On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary dogma in Munificentissimus Deus: “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” The Miracle of the Sun phenomenon seemed to confirm the dogma. So, on August 15th of the liturgical calendar we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. The Great American Solar Eclipse falls within the octave of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. This feast culminates eight days later on August 22nd with the Feast of the Queenship of Mary.
On October 11, 1954, Pope Pius XII released the encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam declaring the Mary the Queen of Heaven and instituting the liturgical Feast of the Queenship of Mary. It quotes among others St. John Damascene that “When she became Mother of the Creator, she truly became Queen of every creature.” Pope Paul VI later moved the feast day to the octave of the Assumption in order to emphasize the close bond between the glorification of her body and soul and her Queenship in Heaven next to her son, Jesus Christ. Lumen Gentium makes this explicit saying, “Mary was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe, that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son.” (LG, 59) Thus, from August 15th to August 22nd we celebrate the Assumption of Mary into Heaven and her being crowned Queen of Heaven. Some see significance in the fact that the eclipse falls within the octave of the Feast of the Assumption and on the eve of the Feast of the Queenship of Mary.
Besides these two feasts of Mary, August 21st also falls on the Feast day of Our Lady of Knock. Our Lady of Knock was an apparition of the Virgin Mary that happened on August 21, 1879 in the County Mayo village of Knock, Ireland. There are some interesting aspects to this apparition in comparison to other Church approved apparitions. For one, this apparition was completely silent. Mary spoke no words to the fifteen witnesses. The apparition lasted for about three hours. Along with the Virgin Mary, who was in deep prayer with her eyes raised towards heaven, were St. Joseph, and an altar with Jesus – as the Lamb of God – on it. St. John the Evangelist was also in the vision. This is somewhat unusual and unique in Marian apparitions.
Our Lady of Knock did not speak any words. There was only silent symbolism. Jesus is pictured as the Lamb of God on an altar – clearly depicting the paschal mystery. In the four gospels, the word lamb is mentioned just four times total. In contrast, in St. John’s book of Revelation, Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb” 28 times. In the apparition at Knock, St. John was seen holding a book, which some have surmised was the Book of Revelation. In it, St. John wrote about The Lamb that takes away the sins of the world, and when the Lamb “opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” (Rev. 8:1) St. John also wrote about another great sign, Mary as the Queen of Heaven: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (Rev. 12:1)
Is there a deeper spiritual meaning to the eclipse? That remains uncertain. As with all things in life, we must live in the present moment and seek to amend our lives the best that we can. Perhaps, if the metaphor holds true, that sin is darkening our souls, then God is telling us to retreat to Mary the Mother of God in pursuit of sanctity. As a fairly remarkable astronomical event, we should appreciate the eclipse on Monday, and enjoy it safely (with the proper NASA-approved eclipse glasses, of course!) But, we should also be mindful to the dimming of our moral lives and the coarsening of our culture. In this time of devotions to Mary, perhaps we can rededicate ourselves to the message of Fatima, which is always the message of Mary and Jesus: prayer, sacrifice, conversion, and the sacraments.
image: Eclipse in Edinburgh by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)