Stepping into the Path of Totality

Matthew 16:13-20

Rev'd Daniel Irvine

This week’s Gospel is one of those loaded passages that has the potential to be used and misused in so many different ways, such as the rise of the power of the papacy through the Middle Ages.

In an effort to steer us into new territory and not re-fight old battles I went reading through commentaries and trawling the web to see what I could find that might shed a different kind of light on this well known text.

I found a sermon by a Lutheran pastor in the United States named Anna Tew[1] which did just light, in fact light was a key part of the idea that she was trying to get across and so, with a few modifications I wanted to share her thoughts with you this morning.

She begins by letting everyone in on a fun fact: that before there was the corona virus pandemic, the word “corona” was normally only popular in the news was during the event of a solar eclipse.

In this case, it didn’t refer to a virus, but to the dazzling light of the sun’s plasma or “atmosphere” that is usually invisible to us, but which we can see during a solar eclipse. It is that type of “corona” that you’ll need to keep in mind as we reflect on our gospel reading today.

In Australia the last total solar eclipse occurred in 2012, what seems like a century ago, but that one was only visible in the far northern parts of the country.

In South Australia, our last total eclipse, which we only caught a part of, was in 2002, but perhaps the one that might stick in the minds of many was the total eclipse whose epicentre was over Melbourne in 1976.

If you want to go to the effort you can look up the historic television broadcast on YouTube to relive, or if you are closer to my age, experience the event for the first time.

For a moment back then in 1976 – the nation stopped and people either watched on TV or stepped outside to observe the strange phenomenon happening in the sky.

As the broadcaster said, the feeling was an eerie, tingling sensation as day turned into night, the temperature dropped suddenly and dramatically, and even the birds stopped singing.

These days, we can plan for months and perhaps years to observe solar eclipses, but when human beings first experienced this natural phenomenon they were quite understandably shocked, scared and confused.

As with other celestial phenomena, humans had no way of completely observing or explaining what was happening in the sky, so they came up with their own theories: One classic that has travelled down to us through the ages was that a dragon was eating the sun. In response, people would bang gongs or sacrifice animals, sometimes even humans, to try to get the dragon to leave them alone and return the Sun to us.

And wouldn’t you know it? Those sacrifices “worked” every time. The sun always returned, which just proves they must have been right I guess.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells us about a time when the path of totality, where the Sun is completely obscured, crossed a battlefield as the Medes and the Lydians fought another battle in a long-standing war.

When the sky became dark, the soldiers immediately stopped fighting, and their leaders took the eclipse as a sign that they should agree to a truce. This momentous event is known as the Eclipse of Thales, named after the philosopher who is said to have predicted it ahead of time. That battle, eclipse, and truce occurred on May 28, 585 BCE.

Eclipses are much less of a mystery to us now. We now know that there is no dragon in the sky. We know that we do not need to sacrifice anyone or anything to convince the sun to come back. We can even predict the exact dates and times of every eclipse, so it’s much less of a shock and they no longer change the course of history in quite the same way.

However, a total solar eclipse is still a big deal, and science has made it possible for more people than ever to witness one.

The next one in South Australia, in case you’re wondering, is predicted for July 2028, but the path of totality is in the far north, if you want to experience once without travelling then you need to wait until December 2038!

When these events occur however, many people do travel, as they pour in to the “path of totality” from wherever they might live to experience the strange scene when the moon completely obscures the sun, the birds stop chirping, the land goes dark, and all you can see of the Sun is the corona — the shimmering halo that extends into space.

People of all faiths and none have been recorded as describing it as a deep spiritual experience, and when they occur people stop bickering about everything for just a few minutes to witness the cosmos putting on an amazing show. And then, just like that, life restarts again.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has come quite a way since having healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter in last week’s reading.

Between that passage and this one, he’s fed four thousand men plus women and children and had plenty of leftovers, and right after that, he’s argued with the Pharisees and other religious authorities about showing them a sign that he’s really sent from God.

Of course, he had just given them a sign — he’d just fed a huge crowd of people out of nothing. Those Pharisees had no sense of irony at all did they?

Then, after all that, even his disciples don’t seem to understand who he is or what his mission is. It’s one of those times when Jesus must’ve felt like nobody understood him or his mission, despite the fact that he was constantly talking about it.

So finally, Jesus directly asks his disciples, “Who do people out there say that I am?” Perhaps he starts with the crowds rather than the disciples because he knows it’ll be easier for them to talk about other people’s feelings and assumptions, rather than their own.

The reply comes, “Well, some say John the Baptist” — which could be a case of mistaken identity on behalf of the crowds, or it could be a case of “he’s back from the dead,” depending on whether or not they’d heard the news that John had been killed.

But then there are also other, definitely “they think you’re someone back from the dead” cases. One response to Jesus’ question about who the crowds say he is comes in: “Some say Elijah, others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Then Jesus asks his disciples pointedly about their own views of him: “Who do you say that I am?” A disciple who, up to that point, has been called Simon steps up and says: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And just like that, something extraordinary has happened and something hidden has been revealed.

They finally said it out loud.

You know those moments when you know something is true, but then when you hear yourself say it, it becomes real for you?

That was probably what it was like for Peter. All of a sudden, things shift dramatically, and you can see things in a way you never have before, all because someone said what he already knew out loud.

Peter finds himself in a kind of path of totality of his own, where everything stops for a moment, and where all the disciples look up and see the same thing.

In a few minutes, everything will be back to normal and Jesus will quickly tell them not to let anyone know that he’s the Messiah.

But for a few shining moments, everything shifts, and Simon even gets a new name: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! …I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and all of hell won’t be able to touch it.”

The truth of the matter is that we are all the heirs of Peter and those who built the church in the years following the resurrection of Jesus.

And yet the church’s history is not a clean one — the church has done plenty of evil in Christ’s name to all kinds of people and it is important that we can admit that.

But every now and then, we find ourselves in a kind of path of totality.

Every now and then, everything stops, and we see clearly not only who God is — a self-giving God of love, patience, and welcome — but who we are and who we are meant to be in response to that.

We have come from God and we are going to God, and right now, and every day in our lives, God is asking: “Who do you say that I am?”

Consider that question for yourself, because the answer you give will shape who you – and we – will be.

Sometime today, put yourself in the path of totality. For just a moment, say it out loud: Who is Jesus to you? Who is Jesus to our church?


Solar eclipses shake up a lot within us: they make us see how very tiny we are amid a huge solar system and universe.

Eclipses can help us to understand something about ourselves as well.

They provide those rare moments of clarity when we can see things that we usually can’t — both literally and metaphorically.

They stop everything — all the bickering, even all the suffering, just for a few moments. They help us all to look up and see the same thing.

When we worship together, sing together, participate in the Eucharist together, we are in a kind of path of totality.

Everything can stop for just a few minutes as we all gather around Christ. Christ may be the only thing we have in common, but luckily, Christ is the only thing that matters.

So let us put ourselves in the path of totality. Let us say who we think Jesus is and who we think we are in Christ – out loud.

For once, let us look to Christ, and in so doing, may we look up and see the same thing: love, grace, and the path of totality — total, complete, and all-encompassing grace. Amen.

[1] Anna Tew’s original sermon can be found at https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/totality-pentecost-12-august-23-2020

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