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Significance and Meaning: Eclipse 2017

20 Aug 2017

The long waited spectacle of science culminates in the Eclipse of 2017.  What makes this event significant is not its historical value nor its philosophical meaning, but its rarity.  Solar eclipses occur every 1 ½ years as the orbital motions of the earth, moon and sun allow the moon’s shadow to be cast on the earth.  Locations where the shadow can be experienced seem random, but can be predicted with high accuracy millennia into the future.  What makes them rare is the relatively small area of the earth’s surface from where they can be viewed.  This year’s eclipse can be viewed coast to coast in the United States, an event which has not occurred since 1918.

Solar eclipses are recorded in Mesopotamian tables during the time of Israel’s leader Joshua.  The first prediction of an eclipse is attributed to Thales of the ancient Greek city of Miletus some 700 years later.  Although this claim is disputed, this eclipse interrupted a battle between the Medes and Lydians and resulted in a truce.  Eclipses preceded the birth of Mohammed the Prophet and the death of King Henry I.  In the modern era eclipses are linked to two significant scientific discoveries.  In 1868 the first evidence of the element Helium was discovered during an eclipse in India.  During the eclipse of 1918 there were plans to confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which predicts that gravity bends the path of light.  These plans were thwarted due to a layer of thin cirrus clouds.  The following year this prediction was verified by eclipse observations from South America and Africa.

Eclipses have often been viewed as portents of significant events.  In cultures that venerate the sun as a god, solar eclipses are causes of concern and result in rituals to restore the sun to its full strength.  Among Christians there have been several attempts to explain the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:45-54) as a solar eclipse.  Although the overlap between the sun and moon can last for several hours, the period of totality (when the sun is completely obscured by the moon and the sky significantly darkens) only lasts for minutes.  Whether an eclipse explains the darkness of the crucifixion or not, it is still miraculous none the less.  Either the darkness is a supernatural act of God or a natural event with providential timing.

We desire to attribute significance to rare events and in turn find our place in the universe.  The Bible provides a number of references to signs in the heavens (Genesis 1:14; Jeremiah 10:2; Daniel 6:27; Matthew 16:1; Luke 21:11; Acts 2:19; Revelation 13:13).  These signs range from the lawfulness established in the motions of the sun, moon and stars to the miraculous judgment on unrepentant man at the end times.  Christians fall into trouble when they attempt to find hidden meaning in events such as the eclipse, thinking that it adds to their faith and understanding of God.  2 Peter 1:2-4 states “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness…” (ESV).  Paul also declares that scripture is given so that we would be complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Nothing more needs to be added.

On the other end of the spectrum the eclipse can be used to proclaim the insignificance of man in the random dance of the cosmos.  In a briefing of The Economist the author of “The dark after dawn” states that the universe is capricious and “to see a total eclipse at all is a happy accident of time and space.”  On the contrary Gonzalez and Richards in The Privileged Planet recognize the significance of our place in the Universe.  Not only are conditions rare for making intelligent life possible in the universe, but the earth occupies an ideal location in our galaxy and solar system for scientific discovery.  One example relates to eclipses.  Since the moon and sun appear to be the same size in the sky, it is possible during a solar eclipse to view the sun’s atmosphere, which in turn led to the discovery of helium.  Viewing stars close to the eclipsed sun was used to verify Einstein’s theory.  Nowhere else in the solar system are eclipses of this type possible.

This eclipse does not herald the end of days, but it does “declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).  Like a sunset, it is a testimony to the creativity and beauty of our Creator.  We are not an accident, but are here for a purpose: to establish a personal relationship with our Creator and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.