This is part two of a three-part series. Click here to read Part One.

Dubbed the Great American Eclipse, this astronomical phenomenon will cut a path over the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21.

The last time an eclipse crossed the contiguous United States was in 1918. World War I was within a few months of ending and the US had only entered that war the year prior.

The rarity of the event, coupled with the fact that most people have not even seen a partial eclipse, makes the excitement understandable. But what, exactly, is going to happen? And what’s the best way to see this marvelous event?

How an Eclipse Works

Essentially, an eclipse occurs when one celestial body gets in the way of another. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the Sun and Earth. A lunar eclipse occurs when a full moon enters Earth’s umbra, turning it a reddish color. An umbra is a shadow cast by an object blocking the sun. In the case of a lunar eclipse, that object is the Earth.

The Great American Eclipse will be a solar eclipse. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, the moon will stand between Earth and Sun.

Because the moon is so much smaller than the Earth, its umbra, or shadow, will touch only a small part of the Earth’s surface as it passes in front of the sun. The path where the total eclipse can be seen is called the “path of totality”. The duration of the eclipse varies within that path, with people at the centerline able to observe the eclipse longer than those on the edge.

In all, the eclipse will affect 14 states.

An Eclipse During the Crucifixion?
Miracle of the Sun
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People Watching the Miracle of the Sun, October 13, 1917; source: WikiCommons

Anyone familiar with the Gospels knows that when Christ was crucified, darkness came over the land at noon. The New American Bible, which is the version of the Bible we hear at Mass in the US, states the darkness occurred because of an eclipse (Luke 23:44-45 NAB).

However, it would have to be a miraculous one as solar eclipses cannot occur when the moon is full. Passover occurs during the full moon. In fact, the NAB’s version is a poor rendering of the Greek word Eklipontos, which means to cease or fail. Therefore, other versions of the Bible, such as the Revised Standard Version and even the Protestant NIV, don’t say eclipse but that the sun failed.

However, there was a lunar eclipse on April 3, 33 AD, the date many accept as the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Some scholars think St. Peter references this lunar eclipse. During his Pentecost sermon, he quotes a prophecy from Joel 2:31, saying the “sun shall turn to darkness and the moon into blood” (Acts 2:20). If the crucifixion occurred on April 3, 33 AD, then residents of Jerusalem would have seen the sun go dark and a moon red from a lunar eclipse on the same day.

The Eclipse and the Catholic Calendar

Interestingly, the Great American Eclipse occurs during a confluence of events in the Catholic calendar.

The Church is currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima. The eclipse itself will occur on the eve of the Feast of the Queenship of Mary, according to the new calendar. August 21 is also the Feast of Our Lady of Knock. The month of August is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which Our Lady of Fatima said would triumph in the end.

Some people are heralding the eclipse as a sign of the end of the world. This is highly unlikely. If the eclipse is to convey anything, perhaps it’s a reminder of what Mary said at Fatima.

Traffic Nightmare

Unfortunately, if you want to see the eclipse but don’t live in the path of totality, it’s a little late to make travel plans.

According to an article by Time, the Great American Eclipse is also being called the greatest driver distraction of the century. Officials expect traffic jams and accidents to clog roads and bring the usual bustle of America to a halt.

Various states have written traffic management plans to deal with the influx of visitors who want to see the eclipse. For example, in my home state of South Carolina, increased numbers of police and first responders will be assigned to major cities in the eclipse’s path, as well as the entire length of I-26.

Eclipse Glasses
Great American Eclipse
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Solar Eclipse; Source: Pixabay

As children, adults told us not to look directly at the sun. That sage advice remains the same during an eclipse.

Eclipse glasses are essential if you want to watch the moon as it progresses over the sun. The only time it is safe to remove your glasses is during totality, when the moon completely covers the sun.

Unfortunately, people are selling imposter eclipses glasses that do not meet safety requirements. According to NASA, eclipse glasses and hand-held viewers should be certified according to the international standard. You’ll know this if it says it meets the “ISO 12312-2 international standard”.

NASA warns viewers not to use:

  • glasses or viewers older than three years, are scratched, or have wrinkled lenses.
  • homemade filters.
  • ordinary sunglasses.

Dr. Jeannette Myers, professor of astronomy at Francis Marion University, suggests a quick test to see if you have bogus glasses or the real deal.

Turn on the LED flashlight on your phone and hold your glasses in front of it. If you see a bright orange circle, then your glasses are not safe to use. Click here to see more images and read more about the test.

Other Tips to View the Great American Eclipse

If you want to view the Great American Eclipse in the path of totality, be sure to get to your viewing area well in advance. Check your local area for any eclipse parties or concerts. Do not stop on the road if you are driving during the eclipse. Do not wear your eclipse glasses while driving.

There are also apps you can download onto your phone to help you know when the eclipse is occurring. I highly recommend the Solar Eclipse Timer by Foxwood Astronomy, LLC.

During the total eclipse, expect to see a 360-degree sunrise/sunset. The light will dim and have a strange hue to it. Wildlife will also act confused—don’t be surprised if you hear birds singing their evening melodies! You also may see shadow bands, which are faint, undulating ripples of shadows crossing the ground. Scientists aren’t sure what causes them.

Read this article for a fascinating step-by-step explanation of what occurs during an eclipse.

Above all, have fun and use common sense. This is a once in a lifetime event for most but don’t let it be your last.