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Total Eclipse and a (Lunar) Chart

by | Apr 3, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive, Special Days | 0 comments

In five days, that is Monday, April 8, Toronto will witness a near-total solar eclipse between 2:04 pm and 4:31 pm, with the peak happening at 3:19 pm. At that moment, most of the Sun’s light will be covered by the Moon, plunging Canada’s biggest city into darkness.

What a great opportunity for students across the city to have a once-in-a-lifetime “teachable moment” at the end of a school day! The last total eclipse in southern Ontario was in 1925, and the next one will occur in 2099.

And yet, some school boards, including Toronto’s, opted to move a professional development day to April 8 so students would have the day off. The Toronto District School Board made the decision “out of concern for student safety and well-being, and to mitigate any operational impacts that may be caused by the eclipse.”  The board recommendation to cancel went on to point out that “[l]ooking directly at the sun during the eclipse, without appropriate protection, can lead to serious problems such as partial or complete loss of eyesight.”  And let’s not forget “traffic-related safety concerns” as thousands of kids would be returning home while the city underwent 4 minutes and 28 seconds of darkness.

As an educator, I cannot understate how bad a decision this is.  Whatever “teachability” there might have been during the moment of the eclipse, it is lost outside of school. Keeping kids at home that day guarantees that whatever experience they might have had will be a solitary one.  #Sad.

However, another eclipse, one experienced by hundreds of thousands of people in Jerusalem, has made it possible to chart an historic event we discuss in World Religions that was generally shrouded in mystery.

The eclipse in question happened on April 3, 1,991 years ago. 

On that day in 33 CE, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans.

We spend a lot of time in World Religions learning about the establishment and development of the Catholic Church.  We also explore the Church’s evolving relationship with and representations of Jesus of Nazareth – and his crucifixion. 

Crucifixion was a protracted and humiliating punishment, termed servile supplicium – “slaves’ punishment” by the Romans. It asserted Roman power over rebels and disobedient slaves. Despite its prevalence, Romans were hesitant to highlight it; only the New Testament details Roman crucifixions, notably Pontius Pilate’s reluctance to crucify Jesus – and Jesus’ eventual torture and death on the cross. This narrative appealed to potential Roman converts while disparaging Jews who, the text recounts, wanted Jesus dead.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke recount that on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, the rising moon turned to blood. This phrase has been used by writers and historians to describe lunar eclipses for many centuries, and the expression dates back to at least 300 BCE.  In fact, so many lunar eclipses are described by ‘the moon turned to blood,’ that the phrase became a standard description.

So let’s quickly recap the mounting evidence. Jesus was crucified during the term of Pontius Pilate as procurator of Judea, which lasted from 26-36 CE. All four Gospels agree that Jesus died a few hours before the commencement of Shabbat, that is, before nightfall on a Friday. All four Gospels agree to within about a day that the Crucifixion was at the time of Passover, specifically the 14th of Nisan. Reconstructing the Jewish calendar during the reign of Pilate reveals that the 14th of Nisan only fell on a Friday in 33 CE, specifically on April 3.  And, finally, after consulting lunar charts that track all lunar eclipses (partial and total) visible from Jerusalem between 26-36 CE, only one occurred at the rising moon on a Friday.  The date: April 3, 33 CE.

It is extremely rare for an ancient religious event to be dated so precisely. (Could you imagine if we could do the same for the toppling of the walls of Jericho or David spying on a bathing Bat-Sheva?) I guess it helps to have an accompanying astronomical phenomena (like the one we will all experience in five days) to line up the dots that make the line certain and precise.  As we marvel at the precision of an historical alignment, perhaps it’s a reminder that even the sun and moon occasionally conspire to unveil the secrets of our past.  But whatever you do, just don’t look directly at it!

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