An Eclipse in Our Time – Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
After Mass this Sunday I’m going to drive south to the Camas Prairie in Idaho,
where my wife Brenda is already visiting her mother.
As any conscientious husband will tell you,
you don’t need a reason to visit your mother-in-law,
but this weekend we do in fact have a particular reason for visiting:
we’re going to watch the eclipse.
We want to go see the eclipse
not only because it’s such an unusual natural phenomenon,
but also because natural events like this
can help us understand the supernatural world.
The timing of this eclipse in particular
can help us unpack today’s scripture readings,
especially in light of what has been going on in our world lately.
An eclipse can be a frightening thing
for those who don’t understand it.
In ancient times,
whenever there was an eclipse of the sun
people were terrified.
They didn’t know what was happening.
All of a sudden in the middle of the day the entire world goes dark.
Ancient cultures tried to explain eclipses by saying
the sun was being devoured by a giant frog, or wolves, or a dragon.
The ancient Greeks believed an eclipse was the sign of angry gods.
Imagine what it would feel like to have the world suddenly go dark,
and to not know the reason why.
There’s a great science fiction story by Isaac Asimov called “Nightfall”
that tells the story of a planet that exists in a system with six stars,
so that it’s always daylight there.
The people have never known what it is to live in darkness,
to see the night sky.
But every two thousand years, the stars align in such a way
that a hidden moon eclipses them all at the same time.
Night falls for the first time in a hundred generations,
and the people who have never known that kind of darkness panic.
They need light, they want light,
and so they begin setting fire to everything,
and their civilization crumbles as everyone goes insane with fear.
In this story, the cycle repeats over and over again,
every two thousand years.
Now, we in the scientific era know that an eclipse is simply
the passing of the moon in front of the sun.
We know that it will end.
It’s a darkness, yes, but it’s a darkness that is only temporary.
There is no need for us to fear angry gods or the crumbling of civilization.
And that is an image of the way that our faith
helps us to handle the dark things that go in our world today.
And there is darkness in the world today.
Just this past week
we have witnessed racist demonstrations
and acts of violence—
hateful, hateful attitudes and actions
that are completely counter to Christianity.
In today’s first reading we hear,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
But the darkness of prejudice still casts its shadow on our world.
And we’ve heard the rhetoric of violence over North Korea,
and threats of nuclear war.
Have we learned nothing
in these decades since
World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War,
all of the conflicts we have lived through over the last 100 years?
So yes, there is indeed darkness in the world today.
But what the eclipse can help us to remember
is that this darkness is only temporary.
We don’t need to panic like those people in the story “Nightfall,”
setting fire to everything and burning down their civilization.
Our society does not need to crumble in the face of this darkness
that we’re seeing right now.
For just as we live in the scientific era,
we even more importantly also live in the Christian era.
This is the year 2017 A.D., anno domini, in the Year of Our Lord.
Just as science tells us that the sun is still there,
even though it gets dark during an eclipse,
our faith tells us that God is always present,
even during dark times.
Our faith offers us peace, the peace of Christ,
the peace of knowing that all this darkness will someday pass away.
But the darkness clouds our vision,
and we have a hard time believing in that peace.
We have a hard time trusting.
And so we often react in ways that increase the darkness
rather than banish it.
But today’s gospel reminds us
of the way we Christians are called on
to respond to darkness.
We see this in the form of the woman
who speaks with Jesus.
It’s not often that anyone upstages Jesus,
but the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel comes awfully close.
She shows us the way to respond to darkness.
She has a daughter who is tormented by a demon.
So there is great darkness in her life,
and she is about as powerless as it gets in that society,
not only a woman, but a foreign woman.
But she approaches Jesus anyway.
And at first Jesus doesn’t respond to her.
We don’t know why, exactly;
scripture scholars offer several reasons,
but the point is that she’s not getting the answer she needs.
So what are her options?
She could walk away, resigned to her daughter’s fate.
She could try and push Jesus around,
maybe even pull out a knife and threaten him.
But what does she do instead?
She brings her need to Jesus again and again,
fully believing that he can do what she asks,
countering his words with her own arguments:
“…even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Until finally Jesus rewards her persistent faith
and even compliments her on it.
Calm, intelligent, persistence, grounded in faith,
that’s what we learn from the Canaanite woman.
We don’t need to sit back and let the darkness overcome us,
and let whatever happens happen.
As Christians we’re called to do something,
just as this woman did something.
She didn’t throw her hands up
and let her daughter succumb to the darkness that surrounded her.
She did something about it.
But it was also the way she did it.
She trusted in Jesus,
calling him “Lord,”
calling him “Son of David,”
asking for mercy.
This is the way of Christian action.
It is action, and it is persistent
but it is also calm and intelligent,
grounded in trust and prayer.
Whether it’s the darkness of prejudice and violence
or the darkness of personal loss, separation, or depression,
our Christian faith gives us hope,
and it also calls us to action.
The gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to work
at banishing the darkness.
In the face of such evils as racism, hatred, and violence,
we are called to work and pray for peace.
We may feel powerless,
but the Canaanite woman did not let that stop her,
and neither should we let it stop us.
We can pray a family rosary for peace,
or participate in some of the prayer vigils taking place.
We can call out prejudice and hatred for what it is,
we can speak the truth in love.
We can do an examination of conscience,
asking ourselves how we might be contributing to the darkness
either by remaining silent,
or acting out of prejudice,
or responding with violence ourselves.
But above all we can remember that this darkness only temporary,
and we can trust in our brother Jesus Christ.
Look at the darkness that the early Christians faced,
the persecutions they underwent, the violence they endured
at the hands of the Roman emperors.
How did they respond?
In the same way their savior responded.
They responded by speaking the truth in love,
even if if meant going to their deaths.
After all, whom do we worship?
Do we worship a man with a sword in one hand
and a shield in the other,
standing on top of his foes, crushing them?
No, we worship the Son of God who trusted in his Father
and surrendered to the cross.
Look at any crucifix, at the Son of God,
nails through his hands,
nails through his feet,
a crown of thorns on his head.
We worship God become man, crucified.
How could anyone possibly accomplish anything
by simply giving themselves up without a fight,
by simply turning themselves over to the violence
of the government?
That’s not what the apostles were looking for,
that’s not what the rest of Jesus’ followers were expecting.
They wanted a fighting man, they wanted a conqueror.
What they didn’t realize until the end is that they got a conqueror,
but a conqueror who was victorious through death.
Because the darkness that overcame Jesus on the cross
was simply an eclipse, a temporary shadow.
On the third day he rose again in glory.
Generations of darkness were overcome by that one act,
that one sacrificial act of Christ, the Son of God.
So when the world turns dark on Monday morning for a few hours,
let that be a reminder to each of us
that the darkness that goes on in our lives each day,
in our nation, in our world,
is only temporary, no matter how long it lasts.
Perhaps during the few hours that the eclipse lasts,
as the darkness descends,
no matter where we are,
we can stop what we’re doing and pray for peace,
for an end to violence and prejudice.
We can pray for civility, for justice.
And as the sun re-emerges once again
from out of the shadow of the eclipse,
we can be consoled with the truth
that the light of Christ will prevail,
that in fact it has already prevailed,
and that our ultimate destiny is an eternal life
in which there is no darkness, no eclipses, only light.