Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Two)

This morning we experienced the last full lunar eclipse for two and a half years. We will have a variety of partial and penumbral lunar eclipses in the next thirty months. But another complete blackout will not occur until March 14, 2025.

“A lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align so that the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow,” according to the moon.nasa.gov site, “In a total lunar eclipse, the entire Moon falls within the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, called the umbra. When the Moon is within the umbra, it will turn a reddish hue. Lunar eclipses are sometimes called ‘Blood Moons’ because of this phenomenon.”

We experienced such a “Blood Moon” here in the Midwest of the United States between 4:17 and 5:42 a.m. this morning. I’m using the royal “we” in that sentence. I was struggling to adjust to the change from Central Daylight Time back to Central Standard Time. But I’m sure many folks got up to witness the event.

Photo by Alex Andrews on Pexels.com

The reddish color of the moon is an expected result of the nature of light. Visible light consists of a variety of wavelengths. We humans see those different wavelengths as colors. The blue light is more easily scattered by the earth’s atmosphere – which also accounts for why the sky is blue. The red light penetrates the atmosphere more readily. Thus, we get red sunrises, red sunsets and Blood Moons because the blue light is reflected back into space by the atmosphere. “It’s as if all the world’s sunrises and sunsets are projected onto the Moon,” according to moon.nasa.gov.

In previous ages, this event would have been seen as a sign and portent in the heavens. Eclipses of all kinds could produce mass panic at many points in human history. The prophet Joel refers directly to a blood moon eclipse in the Hebrew scriptures. “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke,” the prophet writes, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30-31, my emphasis).

Lunar eclipses are not as fear-inducing as are solar eclipses, but historically the meaning was often the same. Matthew Bell offers a nice little summary of the emotional and social impact of such heavenly portents. Even in the last part of the nineteenth century, people were convinced that an eclipse could be a sign of the end of the world – the return of Jesus and the onset of Judgment Day.

One might think that such responses are now a thing of the past. And one would be wrong.

The intersection of the Blood Moon and the United States election day has produced excited speculations. For example, an article in New York magazine offers the analysis and predictions of astrologer Aliza Kelly. Kelly notes that the sun, the earth, and the moon “will form a powerful cosmic trifecta” during the eclipse. She notes that eclipses have been associated with political chaos and governmental collapse in the past.

“And while we no longer use eclipses to portend bad omens,” Kelly writes, “it is at least notable that this lunar eclipse is happening during the midterms, you know?” No, Ms. Kelly, I don’t know. Please tell me more.

When the moon reaches these points in its orbit, astrologers associate these positions with fate and destiny. “Because they always involve these highly sensitive points,” Kelly observes, “eclipses are known to catalyze powerful events with long-lasting impacts.” The relative positions of the sun and earth and of the constellations Scorpio and Taurus are in opposition.

As a result, that’s the astrological theme of the moment. Opposition will be at work, in this astrological framework, in events of personal, social, and national importance. Additional planetary factors are also at work. “Basically,” Kelly advises, “Be extra gentle with yourself as you navigate this thorny lunar eclipse.”

Most important in Kelly’s analysis, “there are no coincidences.” This happens to be the title of a “Manifestation Deck and Guidebook Cards” created by Kelly and available on Amazon.com this month. I don’t want to be flippant here. Everyone is entitled to produce content that matters to them and to be compensated for that work.

Her advice today is to adequately prepare for the rigors of in-person voting and not to “obsess over the results prematurely. The key with eclipses,” Kelly concludes, “is to expect the unexpected.” I’ve gotten worse advice in my life.

Not to be outdone, some Christian pastors also see the Blood Moon eclipse as a prophetic sign regarding the midterm elections. Given the prominence of the quote from Joel 2 in Christian scriptures, sermons, and theology, such apocalyptic speculation is inevitable. As Thomas Kika reminds us, “This is the first time in U.S. history that such an eclipse has coincided with an election, and it will not happen again until the 24th century.” That assumes, of course, that the United States will continue, elections will continue, and such elections will continue on the same November day. But, you get the point.

The conclusions drawn by various Christian pastors range from boring generalities to humorous particularities. Some of these conclusions echo Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. There’s gonna be trouble, trouble, trouble, right here in River City. Since there’s always going to be trouble somewhere, it’s hard to miss with that one. Others conclude that, as the Lukan author says, “your redemption is drawing near.” In that perspective, Jesus might return by the close of polls this evening. I’d be ok with that.

Blood moons have been associated with bloodshed and warfare for about as long as we have records about eclipses. So, it’s not surprising that some pastors would connect the eclipse to events in Ukraine. And it’s even less surprising that politically right-wing Christian pastors would see this blood moon as a sign of the “red wave” in the American midterm elections. Of course, the eclipse will be visible in places without red waves and midterm elections. But let us not get bogged down in details.

Before we “modern” and “informed” people get too haughty about such supposed foolishness, let’s reflect on our own mania for prediction. Public opinion polling has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Yet it seems that the more we spend on polling, the less we know. Data-gathering techniques and statistical analyses have never been more advanced and sophisticated. Yet, in light of previous elections, we Americans are left wondering if public polling still works.

The higher the stakes, the more we demand accuracy in our predictions. If I’m staying indoors today, I’m not too troubled if the National Weather Service misses on their temperature and precipitation forecasts. If, however, I’m headed out for a picnic or some outdoor venue that costs a bunch of money, then I expect the NWS to be spot on with their estimates. In fairness, the NWS is right far more often than they’re wrong – thanks in large part to the supercomputers that now crunch massive amounts of contemporaneous data to give us our hourly and daily forecasts.

Elections have become existential dramas for many Americans. I’m not suggesting that this is an unwarranted over-reaction. It may not be. The future of American democracy may well be on many ballots today. My point is that when we see elections as such high-stakes events, our demands for predictive accuracy increase exponentially. The number of polls seems to increase at the same rate. Given the probabilistic nature of polling, we end up getting predictions that cover pretty much every logical eventuality.

When forecasts predict everything, they predict nothing. It would seem this year that we might do as well consulting chicken entrails as consulting opinion polls about the election forecasts. So, I’m not about to throw stones at astrologers (although I think the Christian commentators should know better).

“Teacher, when therefore will these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are about to be?” (Luke 21:7, my translation). Jesus doesn’t give his disciples all that much help in the way of predictive power. The things that did happen – the Jewish War, the destruction of the Temple, the siege and sack of Jerusalem – happened without producing any cosmic changes. That wasn’t the end of the world, or even the end of the world as we know it.

Luke 21 is all about living between the times. It’s not about discerning the end of time. The first thing about living between the times is resisting calls from those who say the end is here. “Be careful that you are not led into wandering,” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 21:8 (my translation).

The word for “wandering” here is the Greek verb from which we get our word “planets” (Greek = planehtehs, “wanderers”). If “there are no coincidences,” then perhaps the Lukan author is warning the audience away from relying on astrology to predict the future and guide present actions. I don’t really think that’s the case here. But it does illustrate what happens when we over-read texts (or events) and see patterns that may not be there.

More to our point is the rest of Luke 21:8. “For many will come upon the basis of my name saying, ‘I am [Jesus]!’ and, ‘The appointed time has drawn near!’ Don’t go after them” (my translation). If we’re looking in our text for descriptions of the current moment in American life (especially in politically conservative Christian nationalist circles), we need look no further than this verse. That verse provides enough material for some preachers to build an entire message for Sunday.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.