On August 21st, the people of the United States participated in an important liturgy. The liturgy I speak of is not the daily Eucharist, a funeral, or a wedding (though I am sure many of these liturgies were celebrated). Rather, the liturgy I speak of took place on a more profane level of existence; in this liturgy, people gathered together to see an occurrence in the natural world which was at once simple, predicable, and an inspiration to many who witnessed its beauty and wonder.
The liturgy I speak of was the total solar eclipse of 2017. Now, some may protest that referring to an eclipse as liturgy is walking dangerously close to some type of New Age pantheism. Perhaps some readers are wondering if I am becoming oddly attached to the trees in my backyard. No, I have not pined for a barky embrace as of late, but simply wish to affirm that August 21st allowed those who cared about such natural events an opportunity to experience how Scripture presents all of creation: as a perpetual act of praise to God.
Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord.
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord.
You Heavens, bless the Lord.
All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord.
All you hosts of the Lord, bless the Lord.
Sun and moon, bless the Lord.
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord. (Daniel 3: 57-63)
The rhythmic strophes of the song of the three young men in Daniel are reminiscent of the rhythmic dance of the Earth around the Sun, and the Moon around both the Earth and Sun. Such movements and motions are so predictable that the “natural liturgy” of August 21st was anticipated for years. In this natural exchange between Sun, Moon, and Earth, we see three individual acts of praise becoming one, allowing their unified voices to sing a song of wonderment in the souls of those who stopped to add their own voice of praise as they witnessed this event.
As with all acts of praise, the interior experience can be textured and multilayered. For those whose hearts were full of grief, the eclipse may have evoked the image from Revelation of the Sun covered in sackcloth—the clothing worn by those who mourn. As the darkness increased toward totality (the two minute time period in which the moon completely covers the sun), the image of a creation that mourns would have been quite powerful.
For others, the darkening of the Sun may have evoked the simple metaphor from Sirach, affirming that if the Sun, the brightest object in our sky, can be eclipsed, so can the sins of flesh and blood darken God’s grace in our lives. Therefore, the unusual period of darkness that occurred during this natural liturgy of the eclipse may have called some to detach from sinfulness and embrace God’s love more deeply.
Still others witnessing the eclipse may have seen in this liturgy a reference to the darkening of the skies at the crucifixion, the apex of both scandal and hope. Though the crucifixion encompasses the moment we put God to death, it was through that death that God won our salvation. Therefore, some may have experienced this natural liturgy as a reentering into Calvary, being in solidarity with those who mourned the death of our Savior.
At the same time, this liturgy should not be reduced to solely the more mournful aspects of life. The beginning and end of totality allows for a phenomenon called the “diamond ring,” in which a diamond-like burst of light pours through the moon’s valleys at the penultimate moment before the day skies that turned night return to day. In this way, for some, this liturgy was an experience of the resurrection, allowing the glory of the risen Christ to overcome the “eclipse” whereby the stone that lay in front of Jesus’ tomb is removed. Just as the soldiers would have been taken by awe and wonder, so, too, were those who beheld the eclipse, this liturgy, reduced to awe and wonder, allowing their praise of God to enter this profane liturgy.
These moments remind us that the natural world is not always that natural. Sometimes, the rhythmic passing of chronos (the moment to moment passing of time) can numb the soul to the timeless moments of supernatural kyros. Though totality during this eclipse lasted for only a few passing moments, the experience of those moments, for many, remain to this day as timeless reminders of our own ultimate destiny in the afterlife.
Dancing Sun, Parading Planets
Though this natural liturgy of sun, moon, and earth was striking—even in its predictability—there are other events in the world that are not so natural and also involve the sun. This year is the 100th the anniversary of what is called “The Miracle of Sun.” On October 13, 1917 in Fatima, Portugal, it was said that the sun was visible to the naked eye and acted in an irregular manner, not reflecting the “ordo” of natural behavior.
Some wonder if science can explain this type of event. The answer is simply no—a miraculous event implies something that goes beyond the natural. I have never experienced such an event. While looking directly at the sun as it danced across the sky, the crowd that gathered at Fatima was not harmed; however, under normal circumstances, I would not encourage anyone to look directly at the sun since it would do irreversible damage to the eyes. Nevertheless, experiences that are miraculous remind us that we do not live in a world of only mechanistic gears and levers. We live in a world that commingles earth and heaven, the material and immaterial, in such an intimate way that it is inseparable, while still being identifiable in a way that points to two realities.
Yes, the full unfolding of the Kingdom of God will not be completed until the final judgment; however, we also must avoid the trap of thinking that this capstone moment of human history is the only time in which God’s Kingdom will be established. We truly live as strangers in a strange land with one foot firmly planted in soil and the other upon the divine revelations that transcend our material world.
Creation’s Cosmic Liturgy
The Church has given beautiful voice to God’s dynamic creation under the title of “Cosmic Liturgy.” While the name is modern, what it speaks to has ancient roots which connect the natural world intimately with the liturgy. Seventh century theologian Maximus the Confessor is one of the most prominent figures of this liturgical framework, presenting in his work, Mystagogy, a rich commentary on how every aspect of the Eucharistic Liturgy reveals an intimate connection between the natural world, the earthly liturgy, and the heavenly liturgy.
This connection between the natural and supernatural in the Cosmic Liturgy can be seen in classical church architecture. For example, it was customary to present the stars of the night sky in the ceiling of the church. This representation of the heavens communicates the meeting point of the earthly and heavenly liturgies. This liturgical vision was also adapted to the creation of the liturgical calendar to see in the natural rhythms of spring, summer, fall, and winter a connection between ordinary time, Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Cosmic Liturgy, when internalized properly, can be a powerful witness to Christ’s call for us to pray always.
This vision of divinity reflected through creation peers into the natural ordo of the world and finds symbols of the deep mysteries of faith. Whether it be the slow shortening of our days after the feast of the birth of John the Baptist (June 24) that signifies the increased effects of sin the world or the slow lengthening of days after Christmas, revealing that Jesus has come to chase away the darkness of sin and death, we can find in the patterns of creation natural reminders of supernatural truths and events. (These specific patterns only work for the Northern Hemisphere.)
Fatima and Physics
There have been some who are giving voice to a type of Cosmic Liturgy in relation to the 100th Anniversary of Fatima. Some have commented on a star formation in which Jupiter passes through the “womb” of the constellation Virgo (the virgin) during a nine-month period. Some argue that this leads to a daytime coming together of a woman (Virgo) with child (Jupiter) bathed in the Sun with a crown of twelve “stars” that include the constellation of Leo the Lion and the planet alignment of Mercury, Mars, and Venus. Unfortunately, we can’t directly observe these events since they occur during daylight, but our understanding of the natural movements of stars and planets give us the ability to track such movements. Some have even speculated about a more profound connection between heaven and earth here. Could there be some hidden prophecy God is giving on the anniversary of Fatima?
Unfortunately, the beauty of Fatima has been marred by many errors (spurned as often perhaps by wild imagination as by ill-will) and what we might call in this age of the internet, “click-bait” sensationalism. These attempts to conjure what is not there have contorted this coming together of the Fatima anniversary and coincidental configurations of celestial bodies. Some argue that this formation of stars and planets has never happened before, but this is not true. The formation is not unique, but common enough it happens about every twelve years. Also, the alignment of planets with the constellation Leo does not lead to unique configuration of twelve heavenly bodies—it’s simply not true. Lastly, for those who want to turn this astronomical event into some type of apocalyptic foreshadowing, let us remember that the Church condemns astrology—or any attempt to deduce the future from the natural movement of the physical world.
A healthier approach to interpreting these type of events is to see them as the aforementioned Cosmic Liturgy sees similar events: natural signs of supernatural realities. For example, since Christmas is a yearly remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ, is there harm in being reminded of Mary and Jesus every twelve years as Jupiter passes through Virgo? No, there isn’t. Similar to the recent total solar eclipse which made headlines around the world, can we see in this formation of heavenly bodies around the time of Fatima’s centennial a heightened awareness of Our Lady of Fatima? Yes, we can.
The difficulty, however, of welcoming the Jupiter-Virgo alignment into the established vision of Cosmic Liturgy as a specific part of the 100th anniversary of Fatima is that the alignment of this constellation would only occur once. The power of Cosmic Liturgy is that there is a yearly, observable pattern to remind us of our faith. Further, since this event happens during the daytime, the self-evident nature of Cosmic Liturgy symbols becomes obscured. While the knowledge of the event can be meaningful to some, it lacks the observable power of events like days and nights lengthening and shortening. Nevertheless, it can be a powerful reminder of Mary and Jesus, just not in the ways that many who are commenting online are presenting these events.
In regard to apocalyptic symbols, I am more apt to encourage the reader to look not to stars and planets, but to the symbols of our broken world present in countries that boast in cavalier tones about using weapons of mass destruction upon the innocent. These symbols are real, giving us serious moments of pause and reminding us of the simple, powerful plea that our Blessed Mother has made at every apparition which the Church has approved as legitimate: Pray for peace. Pray for nothing but peace.
An Astronomer’s Prayer
As we recall the 100th Anniversary of Fatima, may we keep our heads from wondering aloof in the clouds, and remain focused more intently upon the gravity of the circumstances of the world in which we live. May we make a perpetual act of worship to God in which all of creation can participate, begging the Creator for peace within his creation. And may we look for signs of hope in our broken world, so we may not succumb to the despairing nihilism of doom, but embrace the true freedom and joy of a life rooted in Jesus Christ and his Church, allowing a different type of Kingdom to rule our hearts, establishing a world of peace.
Father James Kurzynski is the Pastor of Saint Joseph Parish in Menomonie, and St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, both in Wisconsin. He is also Chaplain of StoutCatholic at the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Stout; and author for The Catholic Astronomer: The Official Blog of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.