On August 21, the total eclipse of the sun crossed the continental United States; millions of people witnessed it in part or totality, but that’s hardly news. Its appearance was mathematically predicted so far in advance that it doesn’t count as news in some ways, but a natural occurrence imbued with supernatural significance. There was little else reported on Sunday, with stunning photos on Monday and thereafter. It made a nice break from the sideshow of racist violence, political misconduct and packaged misery that the news has become.
I missed the 1979 partial (in Massachusetts) eclipse to rain and I was not going to miss this one, even if it meant just going outside my apartment building. Still, I felt a bit silly all alone with my cereal-box reflector, so I walked to the corner, in front of the last gay bar in the neighborhood, where I met some of the regulars getting an early start, a three-generation family (perhaps tourists) and a gaggle of college students whose cereal habits were as disappointingly wholesome as my own. Those of us present shared our boxes and eclipse glasses so that everyone got to see this rare occurrence. But in Washington, D.C., with 80% or so of the sun’s light blocked, it was nearly as bright as normal. The real sight was ground level. Ad-hoc neighborliness. Eclipse lore suggests animals act strangely (perhaps that’s only in totality) so what I did not expect was the calm.
Could it be that, after months of disturbing news, something primal and inevitable like the eclipse was a comfort rather than a mystery or dad omen? It was certainly a distraction, and that brings its own concern. It’s easy to universalize one’s experience, and when that happens, it’s too easy to misinterpret how the world looks to others.
After the eclipse, I thought of Matthew 4:16: “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” These last few months have been politically and socially disorienting, but with a major news item that didn’t focus on it, we could – should we choose to – that the world is not fundamentally different than it was a year ago. The lightbulb, er, sun lights up: what changes quickly can change again quickly, and what moves slowly takes a long time to change. There were problems in the Obama administration and before that a lot of people hold grievances against, and further there are people eager to stoke those grievances for their own benefit. It is easy to look at the president’s crass, barely-coded attacks and see that these are to blame for our discontent. It is much harder to accept that he also pulled back a thin veil which exposes a host of other issues, say racially-biased policing, that had not revealed too much concern.
So, we have a double bind: to survive the stress and strain seen these days, and also recognize that for many people the stress and strain is not new and cannot be resolved by a simple change of administration. To be Universalist Christians means giving up the false universalism of our point of view and with that we can understand how different people can see the same situation in different ways.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells