The Path of Totality
I regret to inform you that from the backyard of St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana, the eclipse was a total bust.
I didn’t do any real prep for it, to tell you the truth. I didn’t buy any glasses, or even make one of those homemade cereal box viewers.
My parents’ house in Missouri was in the perfect spot to see the complete eclipse, and they and my sisters and all their kids were gathering to have a party for it. I guess I was bummed that I wouldn’t be a part of it and was kind of cranky about the whole thing.
But that morning I did look up when the 93% bit that would be visible in Indianapolis would come through, 2:28 p.m., and I dutifully went outside at 2:24 p.m.
I was mostly hoping to view the effects on the environment around me, since I wasn’t prepared to be able to see the eclipse itself.
I thought it might get dark, even drop a few degrees in temperature. I carefully watched shadows to look for changes, and tried to see if I got the heebie-jeebies.
Well, it was a total zero.
There were clouds coming across the sky the whole time, and even when the clouds dissipated briefly, nothing seemed to change.
It was like a normal partly cloudy day all the way through 2:28 p.m. Then I heard my phone ringing and had to run back inside—my boss needed me to check something on my calendar.
The whole thing was significantly underwhelming, to say the least.
But I am 100% in the minority in having had that result.
Everyone else I heard from had dramatic and even life-changing experiences.
One person burst into tears as it happened.
Others were flooded with joy and awe at the miraculous workings of the cosmos.
Many people, including a couple of members of my family, found themselves deeply unsettled and even disturbed by the eclipse.
Some animal part of their brains felt threatened by the most constant and unchanging part of nature, the sun that makes all life possible on our planet, going dark. My mom said she even got lightheaded.
I was fascinated by these accounts, and paradoxically found myself far more interested in the eclipse after it happened than I was before or during. I was so intrigued by these disparate reactions.
And as many people have commented, there also was something healing and hopeful about the unity briefly displayed in a nation so deeply divided.
Even if we went back to shouting at each other a day later, for one brief, dark moment, we all looked at the sky together and held our breath.
There was this narrow path that stretched across the U.S. where the eclipse was total. The sun would be 100% covered by the moon and completely blocked out.
This band was called “The Path of Totality.”
And as I heard the experiences of the people who witnessed it, the joy and fear and awe that washed over them, I realized that “The Path of Totality” is in fact a fantastic image for the gospel life—which Jesus in fact described as a narrow path, just like in the eclipse.
Jesus is addressing this in our gospel story today.
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he asks the disciples.
And many people have some understanding of who Jesus is.
“Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” is the report.
They can recognize that Jesus has a prophetic message, that this message is important, and that Jesus’ presence among them has deep significance for God’s people.
But they only get part of it.
They are not in the Path of Totality.
Some are in 50% exposure to the full meaning of Jesus’ presence, some at 80% or 90%.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
This is the question: are you on the Path of Totality?
The Path of Totality is the path of confessing Jesus as the Messiah, as the one who will save you at a fundamental level, who will change you at a fundamental level.
And many people enter the Path of Totality with Jesus just like they did with the eclipse: doing it because everyone else is doing it, thinking it will probably be impressive but is mostly a bit of fun, a neat thing to say you did.
But when you really get there, it’s way more overwhelming than you expected.
Saying yes to the Gospel as the Path of Totality means exposing yourself freely and fully to the darkness, just like the eclipse Path of Totality.
And as Christians, we commit to staying in that darkness and facing it head on, to standing in solidarity and love with everyone who is in the dark and feels alone and lost within it.
And in that darkness, we look toward the heavens, and there is a thin rim of light that still shines around the edges of the dark center.
In the gospel life, the eclipse lasts longer than two minutes and forty seconds.
The eclipse, the blocking of the light by the shadow, is the shadow of sin and death through our whole lives.
It is the Fall, and it is the Cross.
It is the Passion and the Tomb.
But even then—the light is not fully gone.
The corona remains, reminding us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” as John puts it.
But in the life of faith, the Path of Totality is always a choice.
Many of us live our whole lives with 93% exposure to grace and truth, or 60%, or 20%.
We’ll take just enough gospel to comfort us and make us feel virtuous and secure, but standing with our face toward the deep and endless night, holding on to hope for those who have lost it? That is beyond us. That is only for the great saints.
Or is it?
Jesus asks us directly. “Who do you say that I am?”
What path are you on?
Can you say yes to the primitive atavistic fear that exists along with the joy, wonder, and awe of the Path of Totality?
Particularly when I heard the stories of people who felt deeply unsettled by the eclipse, I thought about what ancient peoples must have thought about when these rare cosmic events happened.
They would not have had the advantage of scientific explanations for the sun disappearing.
Many ancient cultures were deeply attuned to the movements of the sun and the moon, and built religions and architecture around them.
From the people who built Stonehenge to the Aztecs in their temples, they observed and allowed the mysteries of the skies to affect their community life together.
And when cosmic events, religion, and ancient culture get put together, one thing you will often find is sacrifice, either human or animal.
We can be reasonably confident that there were no animal or human sacrifices in the 2017 total eclipse, but not five or ten or twenty thousand years ago.
And that leapt to my mind immediately on hearing the stories of people’s deep emotions during the eclipse, especially when I read the line from our Romans text today: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
We do in fact offer a sacrifice on the Path of Totality, just like ancient peoples, only ours is an internal sacrifice.
We stand and face the darkness, keeping faith in the light, and offer up our whole selves to God.
We offer our gifts and our rejoicings, our thanksgiving and our blessings, and we offer our failures and our heartaches, our sin and our regret.
The fullness of God’s work in us demands nothing less.
This is the risk and the reward of the all-encompassing Path of Totality that is following Jesus.
The next time a total eclipse hits the U.S. will be the year 2024, and it’s coming straight through Indiana.
This time the Path of Totality will come right to me.
But I hope that the Path of Totality will be nothing new and surprising to me, because I hope Jesus will keep asking me every day, “Who do you say that I am?”
I know that we will be strong enough to keep facing into the darkness, because he is the light that cannot be overcome.
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