Watching People Watch (Then Not Watch) the Eclipse: A Liturgical-Theological Reflection

Beginning my seventh year as a Nashville citizen, I had the good pleasure of viewing the total eclipse along with many others on Heard Library Lawn of Vanderbilt University. While the natural-cosmic event was surely most captivating, I also discovered my inner-anthropologist kicking in to make the following observation about the before-and-after dynamics that I think sheds some light (pardon the pun) on liturgical time-keeping:

With some having installed themselves a couple hours in advance, the number of observers reached its peak roughly twenty minutes before “totality” (1:27 – 1:29 pm, CDT).

As the sky darkened in an unusual way and the street lights came on, we all switched between peering at the sun and moon through our special eyeglasses and taking them off to observe the changing light and darkness around us. During the two minutes of totality, we could take the glasses off to look directly at the phenomenon (with some of us snapping iPhotos, of course).

Then, at 1:29 pm we replaced our glasses to continue viewing. … Or not.

As I resumed switching between viewing the lunar movement and crescent aura through my glasses and taking them off to view the changing lunar-and-crescent shadows on the ground (utterly beautiful), I noticed people were immediately and then continuously walking away. To me (and quickly just a few others, I observed) the continued celestial duet was equally dramatic as had been their dance leading to total alignment. That alignment, for us on that one spot of Planet Earth, to my thinking (and feeling), was a moment lasting not just two minutes but spanning from the period of anticipation (its own wonder to share) through an ensuing period of denouement. The “after” period offered a precious several more minutes for seeing a crescent expand in the opposite direction. Yet that phase of the event was unable to sustain the attention of but a few. Totality had come and gone, and with it, most people.

The phenomenon aroused a thought about liturgical time-keeping that has been with me now for many years: My fellow Roman Catholics — but also, at least, other “Westerners” who practice the Liturgical Year — annually demonstrate genuine fervor at the beginning of Advent and then Lent’s beginning with Ash Wednesday. Popular or liturgical forms of engagement ensue, to varying degrees, up to the evening of December 24th or Easter Sunday Morning. But then it’s all over, not only for the vast majority (including those who only join the liturgical assembly two days per year) but even for so many of the clergy and regularly attending laity.

I’m quite sure that it seems so odd and completely out of sync with the rest of the (local) world that we should still have in church poinsettias and lighted fir trees during the early days of January. On the other hand, folks love the advent wreath, which does a fine job of counting down toward Christmas Eve, totality reached.

In the parish where I now serve on most weekends, the carefully created, flower-bedecked font for full immersion, set up front and center in the sanctuary, is struck on Easter Monday. The liturgical director announces on the Second Sunday of Easter that people are welcomed at the end of Mass to take away any remaining Easter lilies (noting they wilt too quickly). Over 25 years of priestly-presidential service in multiple parishes I have observed none to be singing Easter hymnody much beyond the Second or Third Sunday of Easter. I interpret all of these as symbols of the largely popular and clerical inability to sustain affective, intellectual, and prayerful participation in the second part of the Easter (Lent-Easter) Cycle.

In my Easter-cycle homiletics I am wont to note repeatedly that the Church “does” Lent for 40 days, while Easter outshines that penitential-preparatory period by 10 full days, stretching to its Pentecostal 50th. I fully realize that I am mostly “preaching into the wind.” Still, I do it, as gently as possible, trying to invite people to know themselves for who they became or for what they were renewed at the baptismal waters of the Easter Vigil or Morn. I find that preaching on the second reading throughout the Season (1 John, 1 Peter, or Revelation–A, B, C, respectively) proves ever the good strategy, providing the opportunity to give a series of six homilies on the practical (mystical and ethical) shape our baptized, eucharistized, en-Spirited, already-not-yet lives of faith might take now. That now, of course, reaches out until whenever the Glorified Christ might fully come to meet us. Alas, no exciting target date to hit. Then again, for the poor — whether elderly, sick, impoverished, socially oppressed — the end is ever immanent, even urgent.

My theological-anthropological observation is this: It seems to me that the apparently open-ended, indefinite character of the Paschal Mystery makes the Easter Season (and to its lesser extent, Christmastide) difficult to celebrate vigorously over many weeks. In contrast, Advent and Lent each have such a tangible, timely goal, perhaps a moment of totality, lending themselves to heightened anticipation and countdown-able preparation. The paschal mystery of faith offers something quite more, reaching seven weeks beyond, touching on the ambiguity of life in the Risen Crucified One, no less unsettling for us as it was for Mark’s three women who, startled by the words of the white-robed young man at the empty tomb, fled “trembling and bewildered … [saying] nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mk 16:8, NIV). The (perhaps unsettling) challenge of the Fifty Days of Easter, in contrast to the Forty Days of Lent, is to receive and live them not as a denouement but as a revivifying, empowering, sacramental-ethical eschatology.

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5 comments

  1. Interesting reflection. I noticed something similar with my daughter and I carefully monitoring things until maximum coverage (95%). Then we did some fun things like strain sunlight through a collander. We moved inside to devote our attention to NASA tv coverage, but yes, the energy had built up for a release.

    Thinking about Pope Francis’ remarks reported today, I wonder if that post-peak denouement, eclipse or Easter, is part of our impoverishment in applying the message to the engagement with the world. There is a focus on the Church’s mission “starting” on Pentecost, but we have ample examples of mission throughout the season of Easter. Even early on, Peter’s preaching to the hundreds (Acts 2) is an initiation into discipleship, which crystallizes well before Pentecost. (Acts 6 this past cycle, for example)

    When I was on facebook Monday, I saw a good bit of “eclipse mystagogy,” including reflections on unity, inspiration, race, cultural tensions, and such. Since Easter is an every-year occurence, perhaps we’ve become accustomed to the pattern.

    1. I love this observation and the reply above as well. I’ve noted we spend a lot of time on the Gathering part of the rite as opposed to the Sending part of the rite. We can hold past gathering to the Word, driving to the peak of Eucharist, but scant time after that drawing the connection from the table to the engagement with the world. For my own parish practice I strive to keep the lilies… and depending on the climate largely succeeding… to Good Shepherd Sunday on the 4th week of Easter. We make the turn from the tomb there to prepare for that mission of the church launched at Pentecost. I appreciate that the liturgy helps me make that turn and focus the energy a little differently as the season progresses.

  2. A century ago, Edith Wharton memorably watercolored a truth about American culture generally (not just high, but middle and low, and not just amusements but all manner of public gatherings) in her opening lines of “Age of Innocence”:

    “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

    Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

    It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupé” To come to the Opera in a Brown coupé was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one’s own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one’s own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

  3. Weddings and marriages may be another example of what Bruce Morrill writes about. The pre-wedding rituals and festivities leading up to the day the vows are filled with excitement and anticipation. Then comes the big day, then a brief honeymoon period, then … a marriage that continues until who knows when. And it’s hard to sustain the honeymoon, or even the romance.

    I just think that we don’t know how to sustain hope and joy. Or perhaps we’re not built for it. Whether that’s a human thing or a cultural thing, I’m not sure.

  4. Great observation, both about the eclipse and about the liturgy. I will admit that I too went inside a few minutes after totality (though I have the excuse of wanting to get by 89 year old father out of the sun).

    I wonder what it says about us that we find Christmas and Easter more exciting destinations than Epiphany and Pentecost? Perhaps it indicates a lack of a sense of mission, which is particularly the focus of the latter feast.

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