Will Scott: A summer eclipse

I didn’t have the glasses, which means that I spent eclipse day with my eyes low on the crescent highlights of leaves and the faintness of my own shadow. It wasn’t quite darkness at noon but looked like the color was leaking out of the world through some unseen hole in the sky. It was riveting enough outside that I wanted to see more.

In retrospect I’m jealous of the people who got tickets on busses or were fortunate (or clever) enough to take the day off and head for the mountains. I heard it was even worth the traffic. Something like this doesn’t happen often enough. For 10 minutes we stepped outside of time — even outside ourselves — to discover the heavens telling the glory of God.

Of course it’s back down the mountaintop after that. The wonder happens once and then we go back to normal while the world resumes spinning.

Writing about her experience after a total eclipse, the author Annie Dillard calls this a “general vamoose.” We are eager to return to routine, despite the wonder. “From the depths of mystery,” Dillard writes, “and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”

Most of the time we live in these lower latitudes — away from miracle, away from wonder. Jobs and grocery shopping; child care and mowing the lawn; bills and doctor visits comprise as much of our lives as miracles do. Just think about how much time you spend brushing your teeth. The persistent regularity of these chores seems to schedule the majority of our days independent of the movements of the celestial spheres. Annie Dillard, one more time: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

In church, however, our lives have more to do with the movements of the heavens than we know. The star in Matthew leads the wise men to the crib of the Christ child. The darkness blots out the sun at Jesus’ death. Astral signs regularly appear in battles and prophecies. The heavens really are telling the glory of God. The movement of the moon even sets the date of Easter (in case you ever wondered).

Patterns of worship emerge from this attention to the heavens. The days lengthen as Easter comes. The days are darkest around Christmas. Celebrations like these are the eclipses of the church year — the wonder that commands attention.

But most of the church year, most of the spiritual life, happens outside these times.

There are unmarked holy days on the church calendar. I think of them as “Summer Sundays.” Summer Sundays happen around when school comes back — when people are still off traveling on vacation or not yet in the routine of the church year.

Maybe Sunday school or the choir has taken a break for a couple of weeks. The organ hasn’t been tuned in a while and all the recycled hymns are starting to grate the ear. Light falls through sanctuary windows in a different way to mark the seasonal change, and maybe it seems a bit too harsh for the morning. The Scripture passages are stuck in the difficult portions of Matthew or maybe one of the minor prophets. The preacher is scraping the bottom of the barrel for his stories, desperate for some cool Advent relief which looms on the calendar but is still months away from the summer heat.

On Summer Sundays eyes drift out the window, imagining about outdoor activities. Secretly we’re all hoping for cool fall mornings or at least some of the highlights that happen later in the year. Football is back soon, we think to ourselves.

This is a holy time not because it’s special. It’s holy because it isn’t. There is no eclipse to mark it — not usually, anyway. No special sign of the heavens. August doesn’t get its own Bible stories or hymns. Summer Sundays are like the return down the mountain, away from the great event that led us up. It’s where life happens.

Life happens during the “general vamoose.” Life happens in the lower latitudes of home — work and play and relationships. Sure, life and growth in the Spirit happen at the high points. They happen just as much — maybe more — in the persistent regularity of our days. We work we play. We worship and pray. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And we thank God for it all.

Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Saturday of the month.

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