March is named after the Roman god Mars, god of war, because it was the season of war. The weather grew warmer, the days longer, and it was time to resume wars that might have stalled under wintery snow. Spring might be thought of as the season of life and mating, but it was also a season of death and destruction.
I’m not sure we’ve changed much since the Romans. April is the cruelest month. Late April, in particular, has a disproportionate amount of tragedy in American history: Columbine, Waco, Oklahoma City bombing. There is agitation in the air.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the Great War. On the same date 100 years later, the United States launched dozens of missiles on a Syrian airfield. Quite the commemoration of the “war to end all wars.” A week later, the United States dropped its biggest non-nuclear weapon in Afghanistan. Not that these attacks were that striking; we’ve been bombing those places for years. The wars don’t stop anymore; they just accumulate.
I look at a snapshot of 1917 and compare it to 2017 and I don’t see much difference: Tangled, bloody, international politics, the struggle to shake off colonialism, marches for the rights of women, destruction of the environment for profit, a push for progressive globalism and the pullback, the nationalists, the populists, the capitalists, the communists, the anarchists, the hedonists, industrialization, corporations, pollution, immigration, injustice, opioids, violence, disease. Nothing really changes. It all feels stale.
But there was something else going on in the spring of 1917. Three Portuguese shepherd children witnessed the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima on May 13. She appeared again on the 13th of the month throughout the summer and into the fall. By October, tens of thousands converged on the site. They were witnesses to the Miracle of the Sun. Many were religious skeptics, looking to discredit the children, but what they witnessed changed their minds. According to testimonies, after a period of rain, the clouds broke, and the sun appeared as a spinning disk, casting multicolored light. It was also described as opaque, duller than normal, so that people were looking right into it. The sun shifted in the sky in a zig-zag before settling back in its natural place. The soaked ground and pilgrims were dried. The event lasted about 10 minutes. Witnesses gave varying testimony, but many claimed multicolored light and movement of the sun.
While some critics claim that the visual signs can be attributed to staring at the sun too long or mass hysteria, it should be noted that the people did not gather for a sun miracle; they were waiting for a vision of Our Lady, and many report looking at a gate or the tree where she had appeared before when the miracle started. Additionally, people up to 40km away who were not aware of Fatima reported the miracle, ruling out group hallucination. It is also suggested that what people saw was a parhelion, when light appears on either side of the sun caused by refraction of ice crystals. Color grades through a muted prism. Still, it happened at that exact moment, as thousands gathered, looking to three, poor children for a sign of hope, a message from God.
What does a dancing sun mean? That’s probably left to the individual witnesses. Some were filled with fear, awe, and thanksgiving. The message from Mary to the children was that the war would end and the soldiers would return home along with a reminder to continue saying the rosary. Maybe the gloom and violence of the 1917 just needed a comforting reminder of color and warmth.
It’s the quintcentennial anniversary of the Reformation (its own kind of destructive force). It’s the centennial anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Halifax explosion. But it’s also the centennial anniversary of the visions at Fatima and the Miracle of the Sun. God sends comfort and light in dark times. The world might seem terrible and stale, and the world is like that sometimes. But it also beautiful and alive and in the hands of its creator.