My father taught me early in life not so speak in superlatives. Never say never was only the beginning; always, the best, the most, the least, the worst were also frowned upon because after all, things could always get better, or worse! However, I can honestly say that in my seventy-one years on this earth, I have never experienced a more spectacular natural phenomenon than the solar eclipse in August. I taught about solar eclipses so I understand exactly what happens when one occurs. I read just about everything related to eclipses that came out ahead of this one, so I felt I was fully prepared for all the “special effects” that are part of a total eclipse, but really, none of that prepared me for the experience itself. Standing near the football field at Corvallis High School, where we anticipated there would be a hoard of people, but where in fact, Zack, Ken, and I had the place completely to ourselves, we were able to savor every aspect of that spectacular event. We saw the pin-hole shadows produced by the light passing between the tree leaves fairly early in the process. Then as the time of totality approached, we watched the world turn an eerie purplish, greenish hue, nothing like what happens during a typical sunset. It got colder, though I didn’t particularly notice the temperature change until the guys pointed out I was shivering, which indeed I was, though I think it was as much from excitement as the temperature. And then there was the wave pattern fluttering on the bone dry sideway that told me this was it. I spun around and shouted “diamond ring” as I whipped off my protective glasses just in time to see a perfect white ring with a blob on one side around the blotted out sun. A male in the distance with an operatic quality baritone voice shouted “Whoa!!” as poof the ring was gone and boom, boom, someone somewhere set off two cherry bombs just as the corona appeared. I got chills writing about this and I’ve got chills now telling you about it. I stood there during those two minutes of totality, snapping pictures, utterly overwhelmed by the beauty of what I was witnessing. It was awesome, or in the older use of the word, awe-full.
Now in Jesus’ time, having the sun darken during midday would have been experienced as an omen, and not a good omen. Darkness was to be feared, as were any natural occurrences outside the norm. In our wonderfully enlightened age we find that rather silly, though we could be forgiven for wondering just a bit since this year’s eclipse was followed only days later by Hurricane Harvey making landfall in Texas, the Chiapas earthquake in southern Mexico on September 7th, Hurricane Irma making landfall in Florida on September 10th, the earthquake centered near Cuernavaca on September 19th, Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico on the 20th, and the most horrific fires ever experienced in the history of the state of California breaking out during the night of October 8th. While I do not believe these events are in any way connected to the eclipse, there is certainly no denying those were a disastrous seven weeks.
So what does all this have to do with the apocalyptic language of today’s Gospel? Absolutely nothing, except to remind us that for all our scientific know-how, we have no control whatsoever over natural phenomena, and in many cases limited to no warning that they are about to occur. So while Jesus’ catalog of the signs leading up to a second coming are not something we Episcopalians take literally, his advice to keep alert can have very practical implications. Our brother and sister clergy friends in Cuernavaca were having a meeting in the Cathedral in the old part of the city when the earthquake struck in September. By the grace of God and the quick action of Bishop Enrique they escaped into the street where, as other buildings in the area fell, they waited to see if the Cathedral, too, would collapse. It did not. I don’t know how much damage it may have sustained. Closer to home, I’m sure many of you read about the family of the U of O soccer player who barely escaped the fires in Santa Rosa. Her parents and sister had returned home from a wedding in Sacramento and gone to bed early. Around 10:30 the mother smelled smoke so turned on the news to learn that the fire was 20 miles away, scary but no reason to panic she decided. A couple hours later the power went out which awakened the player’s sister. She decided to take her dad’s pickup and drive around the neighborhood to see what was going on. She roared back into the driveway minutes later shouting they needed to leave immediately. Unable to find their two cats in the darkened house, the three family members grabbed their laptops and cell phones and took off, driving up and over the hill they lived on, rather than downhill as usual. They learned later that three cars that took the lower route were caught in the fire. A few days later the player’s uncle, who is a battalion chief for the San Francisco Fire Department, visited the ash-littered site where their home had stood and estimated that had they stayed eight minutes longer they too would have died in the fire. What caused them to go up the hill that night rather than down? What inner voices prompted them to flee so quickly that they even left behind the family cats? God is always with us, if only we are willing to listen.
In addition to the practical, though, Jesus’ admonition to keep alert, beware, or be aware has a spiritual component as well, and not just in terms of the second coming. We are told that Christ lives in each one of us. How often do we miss the essential goodness of someone we know because it is hidden, invisible in the face of their brighter, louder, public persona? There’s an age old question, would you follow Jesus if he appeared among us today? Well, of course you would, if you knew it was Jesus. The birth of the Christ Child, the first coming if you will, which we commemorate at Christmas did not occur with great fanfare. A baby was born in modest surroundings to seemingly very ordinary parents. Matthew tells us a star appeared that prompted wise men from the east to travel to Bethlehem to pay him homage. Luke tells us angels appeared to some shepherds who likewise came into town to observe this babe about which they had been told. But that was about it. Granted Herod went on a killing spree, feeling threatened to hear from the wise men that a king had been born, but he didn’t succeed in killing Jesus, partly because Joseph had taken his family away from Bethlehem by then, but also because nobody knew who Jesus was! Years later, after Jesus began his ministry, he still wasn’t universally accepted. There’s no reason to believe he would be today, even among Christians. It would depend, I suspect, on what facets of his being people were able to see. It’s perfectly possible that his most obvious traits could be very off-putting, so that only those people able to see past the external to the very beautiful but not immediately obvious inner being would answer his call.
As I just said a moment ago, we face this same challenge on a much less momentous but still very important level every day of our lives, in trying to get past the external in order to recognize the Christ in the people with whom we cross paths. There’s an individual I’ve known for many years who until fairly recently absolutely drove me crazy. My impulse upon seeing this person coming was to pivot and head the other way, not that I did so of course,…..usually. Consequently when I was faced with being in a situation where we were going to be together all day everyday for an extended period of time, I wasn’t sure I could, or wanted, to handle it. But then I thought, how much power was I willing to give this person, so I decided to go. The second day, in a very relaxed setting my nemesis made a comment as I was looking at people from the side, that reminded me so strongly of a character in one of my favorite television shows I could hardly believe it. Just as happened decades ago with a student, about whom I preached once on the Feast of the Transfiguration, this person was in my eyes transfigured, and as a result our relationship was transformed. I was able to see past the traits that had always irritated me to the very intelligent, hardworking, exceedingly generous and deeply faithful person at the core of this individual’s being. Make no mistake, this person can still get on my nerves, but not like in the old days, and if I do say so myself, I think I’m having a bit of a positive effect. This delightful soul is loosening up a bit, taking self and others a bit less seriously.
This is a lighthearted example, but it’s real and it speaks to the point that rarely, I won’t say never, but rarely do we encounter people who have absolutely no redeeming qualities. Evil does exist, and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise. However, I truly do believe the total absence of goodness really is the exception. Perhaps in this season of Advent, as we prepare our hearts and homes for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas, we could make it a priority to look harder than we usually do for the Christ in others, and in ourselves. Perhaps we could try to make eye contact with people we pass on the street, or encounter when we’re out Christmas shopping. Perhaps we could stick around after church long enough to speak to someone here at St. Mary’s to whom we’ve never spoken before, or at least not for a very long time. Perhaps we could take time to sit alone, in front of the fire, or next to the newly decorated Christmas tree, and listen to what our own hearts have to say to us.
I’ve only seen the sun’s corona, it’s crown, once in my life, because it can only be seen when the sun is shining yet is completely blotted out. Similarly, for us to be able to see the corona, the halo, the crown of the people around us, we have to find a way, while allowing them to be fully who they are, to see past their public outer selves to the subtly beautiful and loving people they are inside. If we can do that, then in the words of the old Bonnie Tyler song, we just might experience a total eclipse of the heart.