November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 7, 2021
On a cold January night, the earth tripped and fell between the sun and the moon, casting a blood-red shadow over the moon’s face—rouge on a wan complexion—and I tripped in the dark after I rolled out of bed to see it, pulled by the gravity of an inarticulate longing.
I grabbed my gray cap from off a bookshelf by the bedroom door and picked up my new fleece, a Christmas present from my wife, which was draped over the study-buddy pillow by the bed. Despite the two inches of snow outside, I slipped on my sneakers, not bothering to untie and retie them. I put on my fleece, donned my winter coat with the broken zipper, and stumbled out the door and onto the front lawn, where I was greeted by a dry, cold January wind, the crunch of snow under my feet, and a dark sky above. I looked at my watch. 11:32. The totality would start in nine minutes.
Time enough to wonder why I was out here in the first place.
Earlier in the evening, my nine-year-old daughter noticed the moon as I drove her home from a friend’s house. It looked huge.
“There’s going to be an eclipse tonight, a total eclipse. The moon is going to turn blood red,” I said. “Do you want me to wake you to see it, if it’s not cloudy?”
She had once complained that she always misses these things. We only ever wake her older brothers, she’d said. That did happen once, maybe three years earlier; I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
As we drove up the hill to our house, the moon hung low in the sky above our street, bright and full like a giant searchlight shining down on us.
I knew about the eclipse from a story I’d heard on NPR on my way home from work. The host was interviewing an astronomer who was describing the “super wolf blood moon” phenomenon. She explained that a supermoon occurs on the night that the moon’s orbit carries it closest to Earth, making it appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter, that wolf is the term astronomers use for a full moon in January, and that during a full lunar eclipse, the moon enters Earth’s shadow, and Earth’s atmosphere bends the sun’s rays, filtering out the blue light, so that the bent rays drape a blood red shadow over the moon. The eclipse would begin at 10:10 and would be total at 11:41. I decided to set my alarm for 11:30.
The astronomer also said the eclipse would be visible across North and South America. “It is really one of those great shared experiences for everyone on our hemisphere,” she said.1
I spared Mary Clare a scientific explanation, suspecting that the chance to see a blood-red moon would be enough.
“Yes,” she said. “Wake me up if you can see it.”
The sky was clear, and the moon had already begun its transformation. A brilliant white sliver shone at the top, as if resisting the spread of orange-red hues from the dark center to the brighter edges. The light shines in the darkness, I thought, and the darkness did not overcome it—these words of Christmas Eve still fresh in my mind. That top sliver, wanting to be a parable, a sign.
And here I was, hoping for the light to be swallowed in a red shadow. Here I was, on the shadow’s side.
I went back in to wake Mary Clare and her teenage brother, Simeon. I gently shook her shoulder. “Come and see the eclipse,” I said. It took her a couple of seconds to realize what was going on. I went across the hall to her brother’s room and jostled his leg. He glared at me, light from the hallway falling on his sleepy form. Then he looked at his clock, rolled over, and buried his face in a pillow.
When I turned around, I saw Mary Clare standing in her room, tired, and obviously in need of direction. I led her into the family room, put a hat on her head—a fur-lined affair with earflaps that made her look like she had just decamped from Siberia. I slipped her arms in her coat, guided each foot into a snow boot, and then nudged her out the door, her face painted with the shock of midnight hurry. I wanted her to see the bright sliver as it gave way to the dark, to the blood.
Now in the yard, I turned her around and pointed.
“It’s not as big,” she said.
“No, because earlier it was lower in the horizon.”
“It’s not as red as I thought it would be.”
“No, it’s really darker, isn’t it? Not a bright red.”
Her hands were pressed tight in her pockets, her feet planted in the snow, her little face gazing up in silence.
“But it’s cool,” she said finally. Mostly, I think, to avoid dampening my spirits.
“Do you want to go back to bed?”
Why was I out here? What longing had the moon’s gravitational pull awakened to draw me out of bed in the middle of the night? And could the moon’s pull somehow be strong enough to make that longing visible to me so that I might understand why I would zombie forth from my house in suboptimal conditions to witness this celestial event? Why set an alarm and rouse my kids to see something we could watch online the next morning?
It’s possible I did it out of sheer curiosity, the kind of wonder that makes you want to see for yourself. After all, the astronomer on the radio made it sound interesting. In fact, when Mary Clare lost interest, I almost reminded her of her recent confession that she’d like to be a scientist when she grows up; I almost told her that a scientist would stay and watch longer, that a scientist would be curious. I’m not a scientist, but I am curious. I want to see new things. I want to talk about them at work the next day. I want to share the experience of wonder with the people close to me.
This sense of communal wonder and curiosity is, I think, something like the experience of faith. In January, during the Epiphany season, we hear read in worship stories of the call of the disciples. What made the first disciples leave their occupations, their families, and their communities to follow a peripatetic rabbi whom they’d just met? In John’s Gospel, two new disciples start following Jesus on John the Baptist’s recommendation, and Jesus turns and asks them directly—it’s the first thing Jesus says in John’s Gospel—“What are you looking for?” (1:38 NRSV).
This was my question, as well. What am I looking for?
The disciples didn’t have a good answer. Instead, they answered Jesus’s question with one of their own—“Where are you staying?”—perhaps because, like me, they didn’t know what they were looking for (1:38).
Nevertheless, the disciples’ curiosity was good enough for Jesus to reward them with an invitation. “Come and see,” he responded (1:39). Curiosity, then, is that open wondering of the mind and heart, that inquisitive stance, that I-want-to-know-more confession that says I want to see something new. I want to take a step in its direction. I want to see what I discover.
Curiosity, the longing to discover, was definitely a part of why I found myself standing under the blood moon of 2019, but it’s also possible I found myself standing in the freezing temperatures gazing up at the fading light because I wanted to be a cool father who does cool things with his kids. I wanted to make cool memories with them so that one day they would tell their own children what a cool father they had—and he woke us up in the middle of the night!—and they would rouse their own kids to watch an eclipse or a meteor shower or a comet passing perilously close to Earth, thus adding a link in the concatenation of parental cool. If so, this kind of a generational community, me and my kid standing together in the dark holding hands with a future chain of curious uplookers, would start with me. My own parents never did such things with me.
I initially doubted that I woke up for a sense of community. I found it unlikely that many people would avail themselves of one of these “great shared experiences for everyone on our hemisphere,” as the astronomer on the radio called it. I didn’t expect neighbors to come tumbling out of their houses into the streets, mobs of people eager for a shared experience. I didn’t expect to walk outside and join an impromptu block party. There was no reason to think this would be like the total solar eclipse seventeen months earlier—the media hype, the people traveling hundreds of miles to be in the path of the totality, the rest of us thrilled to stay home and see dusk shade our lives in the middle of the day, hear the birds sing lullabies in the afternoon, compare homemade pinhole cameras (ours was made out of a Cheerios box), and thrill at the—in retrospect, underwhelming—crescent image on the inside of the box. And then, shortly after, the flood of pictures on social media, photos of so many crescent suns on the ground, images of the eclipse cast upon the ground as sunlight sneaked through the interstices of leaves—nature’s own pinhole cameras. That was a shared phenomenon.
To long to be a part of that kind of community is to want proof that you are alive through a connection with your own time and generation, forged by shared delight or trauma. That’s why people my age will always talk about where we were when the space shuttle Challenger exploded (Mrs. Howell’s fourth-grade classroom) or, fifteen years later, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred (Duke University, Durham, North Carolina), the same way our parents remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news that JFK had been shot. Some day we might speak that way about the solar eclipse of 2017. But the super wolf blood moon of 2019?
No, I might have wanted connection and community, but if so, my desire was of a different sort.
After guiding Mary Clare to her bed, I went back out alone into a noiseless night, into that eerie winter silence. There wasn’t even road noise drifting this way from nearby Route 28. A few wispy clouds were scuttling quickly by—maybe they’d seen enough and were hurrying back to bed like my daughter.
I thought I heard the neighbors next door and wondered whether they were watching, too, so I marched up the hill toward the road and walked carefully over to their house, knowing that my old sneakers offered no traction on the packed, slick snow. The front porch light was on, but there were no other indications of human presence. Then, standing in the road, I watched the moon just slipping behind the bare trees, the cold penetrating my coat, the defeneses of my earflaps, and the mesh in my sneakers. My cheeks felt chapped. My fingers tingled.
The tiniest sliver of white was still hanging on a few minutes past the time the astronomer on the radio said the eclipse would be total. The red around the right edge and toward the bottom had shifted to an orange. Gazing from the middle of the road, I tried to block the cold from my mind and gave the moon my full attention. After about three minutes, I thought, If I slip out here and break a hip, who would find me? Would I be able to crawl back to the house? How long would I survive? So I walked, more carefully now, out of the road, back down the hill, and stood closer to my front door.
Maybe I was out in the cold to find communion with the past, with the anonymous ancients who knew how to wonder, with people for whom myth shaped reality, and deep meaning was spied in the mirror of the heavens, for people whose curiosity led them to follow, whose wonder led them to faith.
Blood moon. No scientist would have dubbed it that. There are more precise and less evocative color names: russet, say, or simply reddish. Blood. That’s a vestige from the olden days, and I mean olden. The biblical prophet Joel used the image 2,600 years ago to portend the day of the Lord, the anticipated cataclysm of God’s punishment and restoration of the people Israel:
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
The Lord utters his voice
at the head of his army
how vast is his host!
Numberless are those who obey his command.
Truly the day of the Lord is great;
terrible indeed—who can endure it? (Joel 2:10–11)
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Joel 2:31)
Then, six hundred years later, Jesus uses similar imagery to describe the coming of the son of man, a messiah figure who would exact God’s judgment and set all things right:
Immediately after the suffering of those days,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken. (Matt 24:29)
And seventy or so years later, the book of Revelation picked up the trope, stirring the image into its own phantasmagoric panorama:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. (6:12–13)
For these ancients, a blood-splattered moon signaled something both great and terrible, frightening and transformative, something that could only be captured in the language of poetry: the paradoxical comfort that comes from awe in the face of divine wrath and grace. What would it have been like to live among people for whom such a rarity—the ever constant guardian of the night becoming the color of blood, inexplicably and unpredictably—inspired both fear and hope, signaled simultaneously bane and blessing? What would it be like to live among people for whom the connection to the rest of creation was visceral rather than rational, governed by story and verse and myth rather than scientific explanation? To live among a people not yet stripped of wonder, not Homo sapiens but Homo mirans—humans who marvel?
Isn’t this the longing? To encounter the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto called the numinous other, the fearful and fascinating mystery that drives so much of my life?2 My reading. My love of music. My watching of birds. My going to church. My hoping to taste again what I have tasted before.
And at church, my approaching the altar where I will dip bread (flesh?) in a cup of juice (blood?), what Christians call the eucharistic mystery. In some traditions (not mine), the priest raises a large wafer with the chalice, a milky white orb perched on the precipice of the cup like a moon rising over a lake of blood. It’s the chalice of blood, a reminder of death and a cup of blessing, as we sometimes call it. The source of life. It’s no accident the English word blood is derived from a word that means to bless, from pagan practices of hallowing an altar by sprinkling it with blood. Death and blessing, fear and awe mingled together.
Mysterium tremendum et fascinans: that’s at the heart of the eucharistic mystery, and yet it had begun to seem to me less mystery than routine. Had I become so accustomed to the words of the prayers, the patter of feet up the aisle, the taste of the Hawaiian bread, and the sweetness of grape juice on my tongue that I could no longer encounter the terrifying blessing and communion of this ritual, so accustomed to the ritual that I would seek it alone in my front yard in the middle of the night?
Before worship we chitchat in the narthex, and afterward, we watch the children dash back to the narthex to devour a snack—usually doughnuts and hot chocolate. These people I worship with, they are my group—lawyers and professors, doctors and nurses, parents and grandparents—but we have had the wonder drained from us by years of familiarity, by a casually spread table that looks less like a blood-splattered feast and more like a snack—and not nearly as tasty a snack as the one waiting in the narthex. And, more broadly, we’ve had the capacity to wonder squeezed out of us by the hunger for explanation and estrangement from the natural world and the way mystery these days needs to be reduced to sound bite, sermons functioning like radio interviews with astronomers, to make the holy understandable, palatable.
Maybe I need to imagine participation in the Eucharist anew. To reimagine it. To allow it to become once again my connection—our connection, because I don’t want to do this alone—to a past in which death and blessing mingled on a cross, to a present in which they mingle on a table and in our hearts, and to a community that remembers how to fear and tremble, rejoice and celebrate at the same time.
Maybe when I walked out the door into the January wind, I was looking in the wrong place, heaping unrealistic expectation on an astronomical phenomenon. Maybe I should have been looking up the road on a Sunday morning in a sanctuary, where grace might surprise me and give me eyes to see this mystery afresh, to taste the blessing and the fear, to tremble anew in awe.
Because I didn’t want only to see an eclipse. I also wanted to join a community. I wanted to step out of explanation and into wonder. Could there have been people somewhere, in some remote village out of the reach of radio waves that carry interviews with astronomers, who trembled at the sight and whose presence—living ancients—might be enough to give me hope that I could feel it again too, someday, the trembling and the awe, the holy fear, the blessing? People who could teach me how to wonder again?
Even if I didn’t meet them on a cold January night, alone in my front yard.
Twenty minutes of minus-two wind chills was enough. I went back inside. Tossed my coat and fleece on a family room chair as I passed. Cap back on the bookshelf. As I was slipping off my shoes, my wife, Ginger, sat up in bed coughing. She’d been home from the hospital only two nights, home from her second weekend in the hospital that month because of an undiagnosed lung infection and possibly pneumonia. Two weeks earlier, I drove her to the ER in the middle of the night. She was barely able to breathe, her breathlessness worsened by the anxiety of it. They kept her for the weekend on oxygen and IV steroids. Now, after her second stay, she was still coughing, using an inhaler, and taking nebulizer breathing treatments several times a day.
Maybe it was a bad idea, but since she was awake, I said, “You might as well see the eclipse.” I assisted her as I had Mary Clare. I gathered a stocking cap, scarf, and jacket, and I helped her get bundled up in the family room. I put my own coat and hat back on. There was no conversation as I led her outside. We stood together in silence for a minute, staring at the moon, now completely red, already getting lighter toward the bottom left, the period of totality beginning to pass, the silence only punctuated by her occasional cough. She lasted about as long as Mary Clare had before we headed back inside.
I could tell she didn’t feel well enough to go back to bed, so I asked her what her plan was. She wasn’t sure. She went into the family room and prepared a breathing treatment. As she emptied the packet of albuterol into the nebulizer, I asked if she needed anything from me. No, this was old hat by now. I knew she’d spend the rest of the night in the chair, her breathing eased some by sitting up. As I walked back to the bedroom, I heard the nebulizer begin to hiss. I turned around and saw the mask strapped to her face, vapor puffs escaping from the edges, her eyes closed.
I sat on the edge of the bed and put my earplugs in, and I imagined what watching the eclipse could have been like on a different night, in a different time. I imagined fear. I imagined awe. I imagined being a part of human society before we knew so much, before modern astronomy and physics and theology had explained the inexplicable. I imagined waking my family and rushing outside as other villagers gathered in a field just outside of town, an electric ripple of dread-laced excitement running through the crowd. I imagined young children holding their mothers’ legs and frightened dads, helpless to give explanation or protection.
I imagined the whispers of relief as the blood drained from the moon’s face, divine wrath abating, divine patience prevailing. I imagined families drunk on adrenaline unable to get back to sleep, sitting in circles in their homes, telling the stories, speaking of the powers, remembering the prophecies, and thanking their lucky stars—literally—for the blood-blessing of another breath, the gift of another day.
And I imagined that my own family might become one of these, might relearn the fear and wonder, receive with relief the blessing of another breath and the gift of another day. But I imagined this on a Sunday morning, not the middle of the night, at a wooden table in a familiar sanctuary a couple of miles up the road where we, like the disciples, might hear Jesus ask, “What are you looking for?,” hear him beckon, “Come and see.”
L. Roger Owens