ECLIPSING THE ECLIPSE
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day….14And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. (Genesis 1:1-5, 14-19, NRSV)
Our daughter, Alina, is the scientist of the family. Last January she came home from school and announced that we must be in Tennessee on August 21 because her Earth Science teacher said there was going to be a total solar eclipse in Nashville. A quick Google search confirmed his pronouncement. This worked perfectly for us since we are usually in Tennessee for a couple of weeks in August every year to visit my parents. The only slight hitch was that Memphis would not be in the path of totality, whereas Nashville, a four hour drive from Memphis, would be right in the middle of it. As the eclipse approached the news became more and more daunting with reports that the traffic towards Nashville on eclipse day could be bumper to bumper for miles. A week before the trip we changed plans. Instead of heading north to Nashville, we would head east to Chattanooga. From there we would be a 45 minute ride to the path of totality. Instead of heading toward a big city for the eclipse, we would instead drive away from a city toward the countryside spotted with small towns.
Two days before, we made a trial run to pick the best possible spot for viewing the eclipse. The place I chose was not scenic. The place I chose was not charming. The place I chose was not even photogenic. I did not pick our destination for beauty, I picked it for practical reasons. It was up on a hill with a clear view of the horizon, but more importantly it had restrooms and sold everything I could possible need for eclipse watching. It even had a McDonalds. If by now you haven’t guessed, our best spot for viewing this cosmic extravaganza was the Walmart parking lot in Dayton, Tennessee. Why did I pick the town of Dayton you ask? Not for practical reasons, but for historic reasons. As you may recall, it was some 92 years ago that Dayton, Tennessee was in the national spotlight during the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Alina and I visited the courthouse where the trial took place. Unfortunately the courthouse was closed so we couldn’t visit the Scopes museum. Alina did not find the locked courthouse unfortunate at all because she had endured all the history she could stand. Just ask her, I love to read up on a place before I visit so a road trip with me means a running commentary of historical highpoints and arcane facts. Before leaving the courthouse grounds, I snapped pictures of two smallish statues, one of William Jennings Bryan and the other of his worthy opponent, Clarence Darrow. Every July the town holds a reenactment of the trial word for word from the court records. Alina wasn’t sorry we missed that either…hey there’s always next summer! I told her that our visit to the Dayton courthouse was to be a reminder that while closed- minded religion had won the day, it was a short-lived victory because open-minded science would quickly turn the tables. Be glad I told her that our church is of the open-minded variety. She gave me one half-hearted nod and went back to texting her friend.
Meanwhile back at the Walmart parking lot things were starting to heat up. We arrived 6 hours prior to what was billed as the Great American Eclipse. Cruising into the mostly empty parking lot I pulled into my first choice of a spot, right on a corner where no one could block our view. We made use of Walmart for pit stops and to buy food. As the crowd grew, people walked out of the store with tarps and portable awnings to create much needed shade. I only bought 4 items, all of which we will use again in the future—two folding lawn chairs and two huge golf umbrellas. We were now set with seats and shade.
By now the parking lot was filling up. People arrived driving shiny RVs and pickup trucks with couches and coolers in the back. There was a festive atmosphere as the time for the eclipse neared. People were taking pictures with people they did not know and would likely never see again.
While it had been getting gradually darker for the last 30 minutes, about 5 minutes out it became darker still and the remaining light took on a silvery hue. We all stared silently through our $1.99 eclipse glasses until the moon slid to the center of the sun. On the horizon all around us we were ringed for a few moments by what appeared as a cross between a sunrise and a sunset. The sunlight sparkling around the moon’s perimeter looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. It seemed other-worldly, a perfectly timed moment when everything clicked into place at just the right nanosecond for us to witness a breathtaking cosmic event. The temperature dropped about 10 degrees. The street lights came on. We didn’t hear cicadas singing or roosters crowing. Instead what we heard was our fellow Walmart eclipse watchers clapping and cheering. We joined in until the darkened moon slipped ever so slightly to the left and the silvery light gave way to something brighter and more familiar. Then the funniest thing happened. People who had spent hours sitting around waiting for the eclipse and talking with other eclipse watchers quickly said to one another, “Gotta go.” In that moment, awe-filled star gazers reverted to busy Americans with too much to do and too little time to do it. Most people promptly hopped in their cars and trucks and minivans driving approximately 10 feet before getting stuck in a massive gridlock, probably the first in the Dayton, Tennessee Walmart parking lot. Alina and I were in no hurry and wanted to sit and talk about the mysterious experience. Little by little the gridlock gave way to an almost empty parking lot as we too hit the road.
As we drove in silence, a rarity when I have a captive audience, the memory of the eclipse in my mind’s eye was eclipsed by something greater, something grander, the ancient words in the Book of Genesis that for thousands of years have said, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:1-5, NRSV).
It’s a curious twist in the story that God creates light on the first day of creation, but does not actually create the sun, moon, and stars until the fourth day of creation. Hey, God does not get hung up in technicalities when there’s a great story to be told in words such as these, God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day (Genesis 1:16-19, NRSV).
Despite the outcome of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the poetry and beauty of this story is just that, a majestic imagining of what it might have been like back when it all began, back when God created something out of nothing, when God created order out of chaos, when God created light out of darkness. It would be an astounding miracle indeed if we could see for ourselves the instant when God caused the Big Bang to BANG! When the universe started expanding as it has continued to this very moment and beyond. As Buzz Lightyear exclaimed in Toy Story, “To infinity and beyond,” to which I exclaim—AMEN!
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
September 17, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise. At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You entrusted us with the wellbeing of your creation. When we have fallen woefully short in caring for your creation, forgive us. Grant us the wisdom and courage to change course for the betterment of all.
Through Jesus Christ who was, and is, and is yet to be. AMEN.
(Adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pp. 369-372.)