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The Total Eclipse of the Sun: the Exceptional Nature of our Planet

Image: Andrew Preble

Editor’s note: Stephen Danish wrote the following devotional for the Immanuel Christian School community in preparation for Monday’s solar eclipse. He has given permission for our readers to enjoy the piece at Root & Vine. 

Mr. Danish served for 32 years as Head of School at Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Virginia. He and his wife, Sharon, now reside in Colorado where all their children and grandchildren live. Mr. Danish is now a member of Colorado’s first Dark Sky Community where he enjoys his interests in astronomy and astrophotography. He continues to serve the school through donor engagement, writing, and communication.

It is difficult to convey in words, or even in photos, what it is like to experience a total eclipse of the sun. For those who have entered the narrow zone of totality during a solar eclipse, it is a strange and inspiring moment. In the aftermath of the Great American Eclipse of 2017, I was left with feelings of wonder and awe at this spectacle that continues to touch the earth and captivate human beings everywhere. It is rare and unusual that we have had the opportunity to experience two total eclipses in our country in less than seven years. 

Unfortunately, this year I was not able to travel to see the eclipse that moved across the eastern United States this week. But I can share from the past what that experience was like.

Photograph taken by Mr. Danish at the moment of totality during the 2017 eclipse.

On the morning of the 2017 eclipse, after traveling eight hours to eastern Tennessee, my wife and I, together with two former ICS teachers, gathered to set up telescopes, binoculars, and cameras, all equipped with solar filtration. A few hours later, the big event started. As the sun gradually disappeared behind the moon’s black silhouette, the sky darkened and everything took on a strange quality of light. The temperature dropped noticeably, insects started to chirp, birds began to roost, and bright stars and planets appeared high overhead. Under the branches of trees, the dappled light of the crescent sun danced in hundreds of small crescents on the ground. Then, suddenly, from the west, a giant shadow of darkness rapidly approached and twilight descended all around us. More stars appeared and the warm color of sunset settled just above the horizon in all directions. In those final seconds before totality, the last glint of sunlight sparkled like a diamond ring then faded into shimmering beads of light until the sun completely disappeared. At that moment, a radiant halo of light encircled the moon as the sun’s hot corona spread out in long ghostly streams of ionized gas glowing against the darkened sky. At places around the edge of the moon, the warm ruby glow of the sun’s surface could be seen peeking out with an occasional prominence looping outward in deep reddish purple.

For two and a half minutes we were spellbound by the eerie darkness, the arresting vision of the sun’s transformation into a dark black disc, all crowned by a strange radiance we normally never see. And then in reverse order the shimmering beads reappeared, the diamond sparkled again, and with the smallest emergence of the sun’s bright crescent, sunlight exploded upon the earth once again and everything gradually returned to normal.

Scientists tell us that the sun is 390 times larger than the moon, but it is also 390 times farther away. Every eighteen months or so they align perfectly so that the moon’s shadow passes over the earth, and those in the path of that shadow see a solar eclipse. This is often described as one of the great coincidences of our solar system. Astronomers now tell us that there are 295 moons in our solar system. Yet studies have determined that ours is the only moon with the exact size and distance to perfectly match the sun and produce the amazing spectacle we see from our planet. If our moon was any smaller the sky would not turn dark, and if it was any larger, we would never see that brilliant corona. For many, it is a source of wonder, that the one place where this amazing phenomenon occurs, is the one place where there are observers to see it.

In one of his humorous harangues about “Life Below the Beltway,” Washington Post contributor, Gene Weingarten, once admitted, “I am a devout atheist but can’t explain why the moon is exactly the right size, and gets positioned so precisely between the earth and the sun, that total solar eclipses are perfect. It bothers me.” (The Washington Post, Sunday, March 8, 2009). And so it is that this extraordinary event has been witnessed by our planet throughout history. But the nature of that privilege extends even further than most imagine.

The precise relationship of size and distance we witness during an eclipse is a result of our finely-tuned position in the solar system. Peter Raimondi, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that the size of our moon produces ocean tides that influence the very existence of life on our planet. “Without our moon, our marine environment would be much less rich in terms of species diversity” (Scientific American, April 21, 2009). In fact, some scientists believe that our disproportionately large moon, unlike Mars or other planets, produces gravitational influence that helps ensure that earth’s spin, axis and climate remain stable.

But it is our distance from the sun that defines our unique place in the solar system and perhaps within the entire cosmos. Any closer, and our oceans would be burned off into hot atmospheric gas, like Venus. Any farther, and they would be locked up in frozen ice caps, like Mars. Only earth is the right distance from the sun, allowing 70 percent of our planet’s surface to be covered with liquid oceans capable of sustaining carbon-based life. And that 70 percent of salt water surface is exactly what is needed for the evaporation and condensation that produces the rain, snow, sleet, and hail that form the streams, rivers, and lakes to provide the three percent of liquid freshwater on which all of terrestrial life depends. Change that relationship by just one percent and there would be massive loss of life across our planet.

So when I look at a solar eclipse, I see more than a stunning visual phenomenon. I see what appears to be only the tip of an iceberg, a mountain of finely-tuned qualities defining our privileged place in the universe. Of course, the search is on to find other planets that bear similar qualities needed for terrestrial life. And indeed, we have found other distant solar systems, but none with a planet that matches the blue, living, watery home we call earth.

As a Christian educator, I am reminded that God reveals His truth to us in two ways: through the general revelation of His natural world and through the special revelation of His written word. Psalm 19 encapsulates this for us beautifully. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1). There are no words, and yet the message of God’s existence and power is heard everywhere. As Paul Tripp has said, “It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning without running into God” (Your Christian School: A Culture of Grace, 2009). But God does more than tell us of His existence. He sets forth a plan for our lives to bring us into fellowship with Himself. The last half of Psalm 19 describes this. His word is perfect, sure, right, pure and true, more desirable than gold, and sweeter than honey (Ps. 19: 7-11). Through words and language God has given us His great plan of redemption by which He meets our deepest need and satisfies our deepest desire – to know Him.

I’ve heard the phrase “cosmic coincidence” when some talk about the total eclipse of the sun. But somehow that expression seems pallid and weak against the brilliance and precision of what I have seen with my own eyes. The typical explanations of “coincidental” size, distance, speed, trajectory and alignment are thoroughly unsatisfying to me and conflict with all my intuition about purposeful design and creative invention. It is as though every eighteen months or so, God reminds us of the undeniable and exceptional design of His world. I am left with a deep sense of gratitude for the creative imagination of our God who so powerfully and generously reveals to us that He is there, He is not silent, and He is still present in this world.

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