On Monday, Aug. 21, in the middle of the day, the sky will go dark. The temperature will suddenly get several degrees colder. Birds will stop chirping and retreat to their nests. And tens of millions of people, crammed into a 60-mile-wide path that crosses from Oregon to the Carolinas, will stand in America looking up at the sky.
It’s easy to understand why many people will view this as an act of God.
The total solar eclipse that will cross America this summer — an event that last happened 99 years ago — will be an important moment for scientific observers and a massive nationwide spectator event. It will also, for many people of faith, be evidence of God’s majesty — and even, to a few, a harbinger of the coming end of the world.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that God put us human beings here on Earth where we can actually see total solar eclipses. I think God wants us to make these discoveries,” said Hugh Ross, who is both an astronomer and a minister. “I would argue that God on purpose made the universe beautiful, and one of the beauties is a solar eclipse.”
Ross will be leading a trip to watch the eclipse for about 80 people interested in finding spirituality in science. They’ll travel down a dirt road into a field in Eastern Oregon, where they will wait for the sun to be blotted out. Across the country, other church groups will do the same.
A solar eclipse isn’t all that rare. The moon is always rotating around the Earth, while the Earth rotates around the sun. Usually the moon appears slightly higher or lower than the sunlight hits the Earth. But twice a year, it’s right smack in front of it, and the moon blocks out the sun during the daytime, and that’s at least a partial solar eclipse.
When a total eclipse occurs, the shadow falls on just a tiny part of the Earth, about 60 to 100 miles wide, and then moves about a thousand miles over the course of a few hours. Because so much of the Earth is water, this almost always happens over an ocean.
The last total solar eclipse visible from the continental United States was in 1979, and it was only over a corner of the Pacific Northwest.
Something like this summer’s event, where so many people on land can see a total solar eclipse, is exceptionally rare — although the United States actually will experience another one, crossing an opposite diagonal swath of the country, in 2024.
This August, the “path of totality” cuts across the entire country, and every single spot in the continental United States will see an eclipse up to 60 percent.
That means that anyone in the country can step outside and see some darkness on that Monday in August. But eclipse-watchers — including Jay M. Pasachoff, a Williams College astronomer who has traveled around the world to witness an astonishing 65 eclipses — say that one truly has to see totality to really grasp the awe-inspiring nature of an eclipse. Even 99 percent, Pasachoff said, is nowhere near as dramatic as the moment it totally goes dark, which will last for up to two minutes and 40 seconds.
“You have to be in totality to do it. Basically the universe gets a million times darker,” Pasachoff said. “It is absolutely necessary to be in the path of totality. It’s a poor second to be off to the side.”
For Ross and other clergy planning to showcase the eclipse as both a scientific and a religious event, that stunning experience of seeing totality is an opportunity for discussing God’s handiwork. When Ross was a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, he would take his fellow scientists on hiking trips in the Sierra Nevada, he said.
“When they would say, ‘Yeah, it’s gorgeous,’ I would say, ‘Why is it so beautiful?’ It would always lead to a discussion about the Christian faith,” he said. For that reason — the opportunity to use natural beauty as a tool for evangelism — he thinks this eclipse will be a popular Christian event. “A lot of leaders of churches are going to be encouraging people,” he said, to go see the eclipse in August.
It’s certainly not just church leaders who have that idea. Visitors from as far as Europe and Asia started booking hotel rooms months ago in sleepy little corners of Wyoming and Idaho where they will be able to see the eclipse.
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