2017 Solar Eclipse. Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (CC)
Today, I stood in my back yard and watched as the sun was obscured by the passing of the moon. Things felt strange. The birds stopped singing. My dog stopped barking at the things he usually would, and sat there with his ears perked up. The temperature dropped noticeably. The air was still. Everything was eerily quiet, and while I wasn’t in the path of a total eclipse, the sunlight was dimmed enough that shadows changed and everything took on a different, unsettling hue.
I remarked to my wife that it felt like I was standing on an alien planet that only looked like Earth, but had a different solar arrangement.
As I watched with wonder and curiosity, I found myself remembering something I was told some time ago.
Early last year, feeling discouraged (as I sometimes do) by the situation in the Church, I reached out to a member of the clergy whom I greatly respect, seeking counsel. I had recently watched the pope’s video about “Care for Creation”, which I wrote about in an essay entitled, “Gaia Church: Love the Earth. Heaven Can Wait.”
“With so much focus on the temporal, the immanent, the passable,” I said to this true servant of Our Lord, “I cannot help but wonder if our Holy Father even believes in God, or consequently, the need to help souls attain heaven. All is humanism. All is immanentism.”
I mentioned the video. I also mentioned an interview Francis had given at the time about the situation in China. In it, he made not one mention of the suffering, imprisoned, or oppressed Catholics there. When asked about China’s slaughter of 400 million of it’s own children — often against the will of their parents — he referred to this only as a “mistake.” As though the Chinese had simply gotten their priorities out of order.
“I know the unchangeable truths of the faith.” I said. “I believe in them. I hold to them. But this man, I truly believe, is a chastisement on the faithful. … God must be so very angry with us.”
This alter Christus responded to me with compassion, agreeing that the situation with Pope Francis was quite sad. He said to me that this papacy presents a significant trial for our faith, as well as our supernatural view of the Church. But, he insisted, this is only happening by means of God’s mysterious permission. He advised me that the faithful should try not to take what Francis is saying and doing too seriously.
“Let us in some way ignore this pontificate,” he said, “which represents an eclipse of the sun of Catholic truth. The eclipse is temporal and passes. Let us pray fervently for the salvation of the poor soul of pope Francis and at the same time for the miracle of the next conclave to give us a traditional pope. The darker it is getting in Rome, the brighter has to shine our faith and our love for Jesus. It is a challenge for our faith. Let us be in all humility soldiers and knights of Christ.”
This image has stayed with me ever since.
A solar eclipse obscures, it does not obliterate. As we know, it occurs when the moon — an object that generates no light of its own — passes in front of the sun — the source of all light in our solar system — allowing darkness to fall across the surface of the earth. It is merely the casting of a shadow, not the dying of the light.
Today, standing in my yard, I found that I could see more clearly why this analogy is so appropriate for our present ecclesiastical situation.
At the advent of today’s eclipse, many people were very excited. A few were concerned about what it might mean. Still, it seemed that it was all anyone could talk about. Websites, social media, TV & radio stations were all filled with chatter about this unique and once-in-a-lifetime event.
At the moment of apex, everyone — even many who claimed not to care — found themselves looking out windows, standing on porches, pulling their cars over to the side of the road, or planted in their yards, trying to make sense of what they were witnessing. The experience, while fascinating, was also very uncanny. Things looked almost the same, but everything was cast in the same strange light. Like a parody of a normal day, with many of the important details missing.
And then it was gone, and the light grew brighter, and the shadows slipped back into their normal places, and the warmth of the summer returned, and the people went back inside, back to school, back to work, back to the normalcy of life that did not come to a stop but was merely put on pause, just for that brief span of time. Just for the moment when things were perceptibly not as they should be.
As analogies go, it isn’t really much of a stretch, is it?
In the life of the Church, the eclipse we are now experiencing has lasted just four years, but it feels as though it has gone on for longer than many of us feel we can bear. What began as a cause of excitement for many has now gotten under their skin. The fascinating curiosity of the otherness of the event has given way to a nightmare that things will never again be the same.
But we must remember: it is merely the casting of a shadow, not the dying of the light. And in our case, it is not a natural phenomenon, but rather a preternatural one. Put another way, our ecclesiastical eclipse is not the work of the moon; rather, it is the doing of other celestial creatures: “And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered; that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son.” (Rev. 12:4)
For in Christian symbolism, Christ is the sun and Mary the moon. Mary, who does not generate her own light, but so beautifully reflects the light of Christ into the darkness of our sin and ignorance. Mary, that perfect creature who never occludes the life-giving light of her Son. Her brilliance never wanes, but her presence never obscures; she stands beside Him in her fullness, and yet ever in submission. This imagery is captured beautifully in the following prayer of St. Bernard:
O Blessed Queen! It is of thee prophet speaks when he says, “Who is she that riseth like the day-star, beautiful as the moon, brilliant as the sun?” Yes, thou didst appear in the world like the bright day-star, preceding by the light of thy sanctity the coming of the Sun of Justice. The day on which thou camest into the world may well be styled a day of salvation and a day of grace. Thou art beautiful as the moon; because as none of the celestial bodies so nearly resembles the sun as it does, so there is no creature whose perfections so nearly approach to those of God as thy own. The moon enlightens the night by reflecting the rays of the sun, and thou enlightenest our darkness by the splendor of those virtues with which God has adorned the. But thou art even more beautiful than the moon, because in thee is found neither spot nor shade; thou art brilliant like the sun; I mean that divine Sun who created the one which enlightens the earth, for, as He and His humanity is the most resplendent among men, so art thou the brightest among women.
We should pray, then, that soon the light of Christ the Sun and Mary the moon will shine forth brightly to destroy this momentary darkness that now hides the beauty and splendor of Holy Mother Church.
“Heaven and earth shall pass, but my words shall not pass.” – (Mt. 24:35)