Standing in the Solar System

By Dr. Jeremy Holmes

A week before the 2017 eclipse, a checkout lady at our local grocery store commented, “I am so over the eclipse.” Many of us here in Lander, Wyoming shared the sentiment. Local shops sold eclipse t-shirts, eclipse jewelry, eclipse cakes—everything was the eclipse. Anyone with a vacant lot near the highway offered dry camping or eclipse viewing at exorbitant rates. During the event, around 1,000,000 people poured into Wyoming alone from both coasts, from North and South, and even from Europe to chase the eclipse. Eclipse pictures are pretty cool, but who travels across the country—or the ocean—to see an eclipse?

But after the eclipse, I heard the same thing over and over: “I have to see the next eclipse; the pictures just do not capture it.” Or: “I could never understand the eclipse chasers before, but I will be there in 2024.” Before the eclipse, we were over it; after the eclipse, we are desperate to see it again.

What is so moving about it? Why are pictures of a total eclipse so inadequate to the experience?

Comments from friends offer clues. My brother, who traveled to watch the eclipse with me, was startled to find that during the minute or so of totality he did not just stare at the sky: he kept looking all around him at the 360-degree sunrise, at the weird shadows, and weird light. The temperature dropped by several degrees in an instant, drawing audible gasps from our group. Here is one reason why pictures of an eclipse are inadequate: eclipse pictures are all of the sun, but there is a lot going on that is not in the sky, and some things going on that are not even visible.

A colleague mused on how fleeting the total eclipse felt, lasting about sixty seconds in Lander. But he added that the fleetingness of totality was part of the experience, part of what made it seem so real and strange. You can look at a picture for twenty minutes if you want, and it never goes away, but the eclipse itself is vanishing even as you gaze. It is not an object, but an event. The great shadow swoops in from the West like a bird of prey, seizes and overawes the tiny humans in its path, and then rushes on to the East. In this sense pictures of a total eclipse are like photographs of a hawk in flight: we all know that watching a hawk hunt is nothing like seeing a picture of a hawk.

Total eclipse is nothing like the partial eclipse that precedes it. To the naked eye, a partial eclipse does not happen in the sky: before the moment of totality, one sees strange lighting, a crescent cast on the ground by a pinhole camera, and perhaps strange behaviors in animals. But nothing at all happens in the sky until the moment of totality—and then suddenly something is happening to the sun.

That moment destroys something we take for granted. In everyday life, there is a barrier between the heavens and us. We live in the realm of change, and the heavens are a realm of changelessness. Even though we know that things in the solar system do change, and even though we can track their progress over the course of days and months, nonetheless at any given moment we look up at the sky and it seems to be the same as before. Stars shine in the same constellations for us as for the ancients. The man in the moon grins as he ever did. The planets pursue their steady courses. Even shooting stars and space stations do not challenge this instinct, but rather seem like interlopers into the eternal realm, trespassers in heaven.

But at totality, the barrier between the heavens and me is smashed: something is happening to the sun, and that something has gripped me as well. All photographs of the sun during an eclipse rob the moment of its essence. The overwhelming fact of a total eclipse is that the sun itself has become changeable, but photographs of the eclipse return the sun to eternity, to un-changeability—to isolation from our realm of flux.

Because of this barrier crossing, in the moment of total eclipse I am suddenly located with respect to the sun. In everyday life, I am instinctively situated with respect to the territory around me: I am among the trees, near my house, removed somewhat from the mountains. Abstractly, I know that I live on a planet that flies through the solar system, and I know that one can measure the distance from me to the sun, but this abstract knowledge is not felt. Instinctively, the heavens are above, apart, incalculable, a separate realm to which I am not really related. In the moment of totality, when the barrier between the heavens and me is smashed, for a moment—for just that moment—I stand in the solar system.

I think this is one reason people find totality so moving. Usually, when we speak of something as “meaningful,” what we intend to convey is that it connects us to something greater than ourselves. Total eclipse does something like that. The period of totality is a time of being situated with respect to something much, much bigger than what we experience in everyday life. The way we typically dwell in the heavens is through sight and reasoning, but total eclipse relates us to the heavens more the way we relate to a hallway wall, by a physical, concrete, felt relation.

This is something that photographs will never convey because I am not situated or located with respect to what is happening in a photograph. By its nature, a photograph presents an event from some other place to which I do not have a definite relation. Even if in fact I do have definite relation to the place where the picture was taken, the photograph itself does not convey the relation; photographs as such are un-located. Even the most spectacular images of the solar system present marvelous things “somewhere.” Only an experience like total eclipse seizes us where we are so that we take our stand in the midst of the cosmos.

For ancient man, the sun was an image of divinity. Egypt’s one period of monotheism was devoted to the sun; both Egypt and Mesopotamia had a large number of solar deities; even Plato set down the sun as his image for the Good, the final goal of all who emerge from the cave. The Old Testament carefully avoids describing God in sun imagery, insisting that “the heavens are telling the glory of God.”[1] But Christianity takes up the sun again, interpreting the sun, “which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man runs its course with joy,”[2] as Christ, the light of the world. The liturgies of Advent and Christmas resound with the language of light and darkness, as the world darkens toward the winter solstice and then brightens again with the advent of the Lord. In Christ, the unthinkably distant deity has entered our world; “You cannot see my face,” said God, “for man shall not see me and live,”[3] but now “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”[4]

This is exactly what happens during a total eclipse. The boundary between eternal and temporal is transgressed; the sun that seemed simply eternal and remote suddenly becomes directly related to us and our world. And yet this happens somehow without the sun becoming mundane. For the first time ever, we gaze directly at the sun without being struck down, and yet the ring of glory above us “tells the glory of God.” If in that moment we were thinking of the Incarnate Word, the piercing bead of light that begins the unveiling of the sun would remind us that Christ’s humanity opens onto something still beyond us—something of which we have as yet seen only the corona.

I have heard from others what I myself experienced: the sun and its light feel different long after the eclipse has gone. It is more intimate, more precious, sacramental. No speech, no word, no voice is heard—yet its voice goes out through all the earth.

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches theology at Wyoming Catholic College.  He lives in Lander, Wyoming with his wife and eight children.  He blogs at drandmrsholmes.com.

 

[1] Ps 19:1

[2] Ps 19:5

[3] Ex 33:20

[4] Jn 1:14

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