In part one of my reflection on solar eclipses and the Bible, I reflected on references to eclipses that were clearly metaphorical. We concluded with the prophet Jeremiah's warning against astrology and the use of heavenly symbols as predictors of the future. This week, we'll delve into passages that seem to contradict this warning, speaking of chaos in the heavens in more apocalyptic tones.
When apocalyptic references to "signs in the sky" are made in the Bible, they are not simply about eclipses, but all of creation seems to be out of sorts. At the same time, there are clear references in Scripture of the heavens that are stable and exhibit beauty. This dynamic points to a vision of liturgy, seeing in the Earthly Liturgy and the Heavenly Liturgy a mirrored relationship where the Mass becomes the meeting point of heaven and earth. This is why traditional Church architecture often depicts stars and the night sky in the ceiling of the Church to represent this sacred meeting.
One of the central Scripture passages that make a connection between the harmonious view of the earthly and heavenly liturgies comes from Genesis. Let us reflect upon God's reference to the stars of the sky with Abram (Abraham).
Some time afterward, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: Do not fear, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great. But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what can you give me, if I die childless and have only a servant of my household, Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a servant of my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: No, that one will not be your heir; your own offspring will be your heir. He took him outside and said: Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be. Abram put his faith in the LORD, who attributed it to him as an act of righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)
This passage contributes to the biblical understanding of stars as symbolizing either people or heavenly, angelic powers. This is an important clarification to make before we approach apocalyptic texts like the book of Revelation. For example, in Revelation 1:16, reference is made of Christ holding seven stars. Later in Revelation 1:20, it explains that the meaning of the seven stars is that they represent the seven angels of the seven Churches referenced in Revelation.
This passage may seem clear and straight forward, however, the more we dig the more we discover the deep symbolism of the Book of Revelation. At the time of the authorship of Revelation, the image of seven stars being held in the right hand would have been understood as a symbol of the pagan god Mithras and the Cesars that ruled the Roman Empire. This symbol of the seven stars would have instantly reminded early Christians of their persecution at the hand of Nero. The Roman Empire was the most powerful political entity in the world at that time, making this a symbol of authority and dominion.
However, when Revelation clarifies the symbol of the seven stars, it does not reference the oppressive powers of the Roman Empire, but they represent a new authority with new "rulers" to guide the people. When the "angels" that led the seven persecuted Churches are referenced, biblical scholars note that this could be a reference to angelic powers, but also see this reference as a possible code pointing to the people who led the seven Churches. Therefore, a contrast is being made between the kingdom of the Roman Empire with Nero as its head and the infant Kingdom of God with Christ as its head. There is more that could be said, but this reminds us that we must be careful with apocalyptic texts to not over simplify them in a way that strips them of their rich meaning and beauty.
What is also present in images of the heavens is a view of how creation and God are intimately connected. Therefore, when creation is in right relationship and acting as it should, it reflects right relationship with God. When creation is not in right relationship, this reflects a broken relationship with God. Therefore, apocalyptic imagery also contains a commentary that when we mistreat creation, creation itself "rebels" or reflects this disrupted relationship. In one of the more brutal passages of Scripture, Isaiah depicts a mounting war against the Babylonian Empire with a mix of images of war and creation being disrupted.
Upon the bare mountains set up a signal;
cry out to them,
Beckon for them to enter
the gates of the nobles.
I have commanded my consecrated ones,
I have summoned my warriors,
eager and bold to carry out my anger.
Listen! the rumble on the mountains:
that of an immense throng!
Listen! the noise of kingdoms, nations assembled!
The LORD of hosts is mustering
an army for battle.
They come from a far-off country,
and from the end of the heavens,
The LORD and the instruments of his wrath,
to destroy all the land.
Howl, for the day of the LORD is near;
as destruction from the Almighty it comes.
Therefore all hands fall helpless,
every human heart melts,
and they are terrified,
Pangs and sorrows take hold of them,
like a woman in labor they writhe;
They look aghast at each other,
their faces aflame.
Indeed, the day of the LORD comes,
cruel, with wrath and burning anger;
To lay waste the land
and destroy the sinners within it!
The stars of the heavens and their constellations
will send forth no light;
The sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not give its light. (Isaiah 13:2-10)
This passage goes on, but it presents to us one of the clear themes of Scripture we see time and time again: When war and strife are present, all of creation is impacted and reflects this dis-order. I intentionally hyphenated "dis-order" to emphasis that a central theme of being in right relationship with God is when the soul and creation are well ordered. Therefore, when the world and/or the soul are dis-ordered, we find our relationship with God, both individually and communally, in need of something to reestablish a well ordered world.
This spirituality translates well to the Church's vision of care for creation. We know that if we mistreat the world in which we live, the world will become dis-ordered. Therefore, the symbolic tones of apocalyptic literature should be read less as looking for eclipses and star formations that predict the end, but that they remind us that the way we treat our common home is a part of God's plan of salvation. If we allow war and strife to divide the human family it also will be reflected in creation, pointing to a dis-ordered relationship between God and creation. If there are some that question this "eco-apocalyptic" approach, let us reflect on Isaiah 24.
The earth shall be utterly laid waste, utterly stripped,
for the LORD has decreed this word.
The earth mourns and fades,
the world languishes and fades;
both heaven and earth languish.
The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants,
for they have transgressed laws, violated statutes,
broken the ancient covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants pay for their guilt;
Therefore they who dwell on earth have dwindled,
and only a few are left.
The new wine mourns, the vine languishes,
all the merry-hearted groan.
Stilled are the cheerful timbrels,
ended the shouts of the jubilant,
stilled the cheerful harp.
They no longer drink wine and sing;
strong brew is bitter to those who drink it.
Broken down is the city of chaos,
every house is shut against entry.
In the streets they cry out for lack of wine;
all joy has grown dim,
cheer is exiled from the land.
In the city nothing remains but desolation,
gates battered into ruins.
For thus it shall be in the midst of the earth,
among the peoples,
As when an olive tree has been beaten,
as with a gleaning when the vintage is done...
The earth will burst asunder,
the earth will be shaken apart,
the earth will be convulsed.
The earth will reel like a drunkard,
sway like a hut;
Its rebellion will weigh it down;
it will fall, never to rise again.”
On that day the LORD will punish
the host of the heavens in the heavens,
and the kings of the earth on the earth.
They will be gathered together
like prisoners into a pit;
They will be shut up in a dungeon,
and after many days they will be punished.
Then the moon will blush
and the sun be ashamed,
For the LORD of hosts will reign
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
glorious in the sight of the elders. (Isaiah 24;3-13, 19-23)
There are many more passages that could be referenced, but the modern Christian (and non-Christian) needs to remember that the followers of Jesus would have had these texts etched in their sacred memory when references are made to end time imagery. Similar to how the genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew functions as a reminder of the entirety of Salvation History before Christ, Jesus' reference to apocalyptic imagery serves as a reminder of imagery we have been reflecting upon from the Old Testament.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will fall from the sky,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:30)
When read in context, this passage speaks less to an end time prediction and more to the symbolic language that would have been well known to the Children of Israel at the time of Jesus. The core message being communicated was that disobedience to God's Covenant is reflected in all of creation, not just the human person. This core message is something that I believe could be developed further as a modern application to ecological ethics. Other Scriptural images I find interesting are those that speak of a creation that "mourns" and "groans."
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23)
On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. And the land shall mourn, each family apart: the family of the house of David, and their women; the family of the house of Nathan, and their women; the family of the house of Levi, and their women; the family of Shimei, and their women; and all the rest of the families, each family apart, and the women apart. (Zechariah 12:11-14)
In other parts of Scripture, these references to a creation that mourns is connected to solar eclipses, falling stars, and other natural imagery of dis-order. Further, when solar eclipses are referenced, they are often spoke of with a more poetic reference to the sun being covered. In Ezekiel 32:7 the sun is said to be covered with clouds while Amos 8:9 simply makes reference to covering the sun. In the book of Revelation, the breaking of a seal is accompanied by the darkening of the sun along with other natural symbols.
Then I watched while he broke open the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; the sun turned as black as dark sackcloth and the whole moon became like blood. The stars in the sky fell to the earth like unripe figs shaken loose from the tree in a strong wind. Then the sky was divided. (Revelation 6:12-14)
A point of significance in this passage is the reference to "dark as sackcloth." This image refers to the skin of black goats that was used to make sackcloth for people to wear as they mourned. Again, this passage uses symbolic language to point to a creation that is grieving. Further, the reference of falling stars and figs that are shaken loss point to strife between human and heavenly powers. The more we explore these texts, the less I am drawn to end of the world predictions and am drawn more to the symbolism of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in which all of creation participates in the ultimate battle between good and evil. Lastly, if there are any who question this approach to Scripture and want to turn these passages into end time predictors, let us recall the words of Jesus himself when he warns that nobody knows the day nor the hour of the end of the world: Of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. (Matthew 24:36)
The Last March of the Ents from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
As stated in my first post on solar eclipses and the bible, the reason I am providing these posts is to help avoid the annoying attempts to turn a fun event of the August solar eclipse into a fearful experience of falsely thinking the world might come to an end. Instead, there are two approaches I would encourage you to embrace for the upcoming solar eclipse. From the standpoint of science, enjoy its beauty and, if you are close to the zone of totality, find a group that will be safely observing this event, pray for clear skies, and have fun!
If your heart feels a need to explore a faith perspective on this event, stay far away from end time predictions, but see in the ancient use of this symbol of Scripture a sober reminder that the choices we make impact both the human person and creation in good and bad ways. And let us specifically be reminded of Pope Francis' call for care of creation, understanding that being in right relationship with God is not only a disposition of the soul, but also how we approach the gift of our common home.