The Spiritual Meaning of an Eclipse
The solar eclipse that will shadow a great swath of the United States on August 21, 2017, has caused great excitement among millions, most of whom have never had the opportunity to witness such a celestial event. Most folks have seen a lunar eclipse, which can occur up to twenty times in as many years in any given spot on the planet. By contrast, even though a solar eclipse occurs about every eighteen months somewhere on the globe, the same spot will see a solar eclipse only every three to four hundred years. And their duration is quite different as well. A lunar eclipse can last as long as ninety minutes, where a solar eclipse lasts less than eight. So, given the infrequency of the solar eclipse in any given place, and the brief duration of its total aspect, it is not surprising that the so-called “American” eclipse of August 21st is drawing such attention, especially in our social media age. But what it its significance? Does it have spiritual meaning?
Almost every spiritual tradition reflects on an eclipse as something more than just a physical event. A solar eclipse is also a spiritual or psychic (psyche = soul) event. Some see it as an energetic opportunity (or challenge as in the “dark” energy of an eclipse), while others see it as an apocalyptic sign of a coming Armageddon. But there is a more profound meaning, plainly mentioned in Sacred Scripture, but usually overlooked.
The passage is Luke’s description of the moment described in the oldest Gospel “and from the sixth hour [noon] there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour [3:00 pm] (Mark 15:33). In the Gospel of Luke, what is described is a solar eclipse, and he even uses the Greek word, ek-leipo (origin of the English “ec-lipse”), to recount it:
Around the sixth hour darkness covered the face of the land until the ninth hour.
The Sun eclipsed [τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλείποντος] ... and the veil of the Temple was rent in
two. (Luke 23:44-45)
Even though the Greek is very clear, in a survey of twenty-five English translations, not one uses “eclipse” to recount the event (http://biblehub.com/luke/23-45.htm). If it is portrayed as a physical event, does it have less meaning? Quite the opposite.
Jesus, the “Sun of Righteousness,” who arose with “healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2) in a three-year ministry of spiritual and bodily therapy through teaching and miracles, was preparing to set beneath the earth in his total eclipse of death and burial. This was far more than a darkening of the skies summed up poetically in an Orthodox Christian Holy Week hymn: “When you were crucified … heaven was dumbfounded and the sun hid its rays….” (Lauds of Holy Thursday). And it was at this moment:
At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloï! Eloï! lama sabachthani?” which
translates, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34)
The Greek word for “abandoned” (egkata-leipo) shares the same origin as the word for eclipse (ek-leipo). And this is because they both point to departure, desertion, and death.
The sun abandoning its light and the Lord Jesus crying out at the moment of impending death, these are one and the same. You see, a solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the sun and the earth, and the moon casts a shadow on the earth. In his voluntary assumption of the death that every human being has or will ever know, the Lord Jesus accepts the shadow of our humanity, our necessary end symbolized by the “lesser light,” the moon. He accepts death in order to conquer it, in order to transform it. “And when he had bowed his head, he yielded up his breath of life” (John 19:30). As I note in The Gospel of Love: A Meta-Translation, “By bowing his head before expiring, Jesus shows that, as the conqueror of death, he commands death to come” (fn. 318, pg. 115).
Indeed, the “Sun of Righteousness” hid his rays, but not for long. As brief as a solar eclipse is in the natural order of things, so his three days in the “shadow of death” are fleeting. What is important for us is that he partakes willingly of this shadow, in order to teach us how to pass on into infinite light. We, who would view His eclipse and realize its meaning for ourselves, need a pinhole through which to catch a glimpse. Like the solar eclipse that is coming, should we dare to gaze upon it with our naked eyes, we will be blinded – blinded by our own egos and our pride. Likewise, should we dare to think that we comprehend the pleroma of his suffering, death, burial and resurrection, we will go blind as well, thinking we see, and our failings will remain (John 9:41). The pinhole is the answer – small, humble, and without presumption. That is how to catch that glimpse and to begin to understand that “the light shines on in the darkness, never overcome by the darkness” (John 1:5).