With the solar eclipse that occurred Monday, it occurred to me to consider the darkening of the sun that occurred when Jesus was on the Cross. Though some wish to explain it scientifically (as an eclipse), there may have been more at work than mere astronomy.
In Luke 23:44, we read, It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (i.e., from noon until 3:00 PM).
Although this seems to describe a solar eclipse, it isn’t appropriate to insist that it was an eclipse (at least as we define the term today). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak to the darkness of that day using the Greek term σκότος (skotos), meaning simply “darkness.” Only Luke went on to state the reason for the darkness: the sun was darkened (Luke 23:45). He even used the Greek word ἐκλιπόντος (eklipontos), from which the word “eclipse” was derived. In Greek, however, the word eklipontos simply means “darkened,” whereas our word “eclipse” refers to a darkening as a result of the moon blocking the light of the sun. But that is not necessarily, or even likely, what Luke meant here.
As a general rule, we should avoid applying a scientific meaning to a text that is more specific than the author intends. That there was darkness over the land from noon until three is certainly attested to in the sacred texts, but the cause of that darkness is not definitively stated to be an eclipse, at least not as we use the term today. Perhaps God made use of other natural causes, such as very heavy clouds, to cause the light of the sun to dim. It is also possible that the darkness was of purely supernatural origin and was experienced only by some of those present.
Trying to explain the darkness simply in terms of the laws of science risks doing a disservice to the text by missing its deeper meaning: that the darkness of sin had reached its zenith. Whatever the physical mechanism of the darkness, its deepest cause was sin and evil.
Jesus said elsewhere, “This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19). Referring to His passion, He also said, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (Jn 9:4). And when Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John observed simply and profoundly, “And it was night” (Jn 13:30). Yes, deep darkness had come upon the world.
Some also question whether the occurrence of darkness on that day has any “basis in fact” or whether the biblical accounts are mere theologizing. Although a few modern scholars consider the reference to be a mere literary device, there seems little reason to doubt that it actually occurred. While some refer to a purported Letter of Pontius Pilate to Tiberius verifying it, the letter’s historical veracity is highly disputed.
Yet it is recorded in three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and most of the Fathers of the Church treated the darkness as historical.
That said, how many people experienced the darkness and how deep it was, is not clearly specified. We should balance accepting its historical accuracy with an appreciation that the biblical texts are restrained in terms of precise details and were written with a theological purpose more so than to provide a detailed description.
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“In the apocalyptic descriptions of the end of time, the sun’s darkening at rising is accentuated as one of the tokens of impending judgment (Isaiah xiii. 10). At noonday the sun will set (ib. lx. 2; Jeremiah xv. 9; Amos viii. 9; Micah iii. 6). On the other hand, in the Day of the Lord the sun will shine seven times more brightly than usual (Isaiah xxx. 26); indeed, Israel’s sun will no more go down, as God Himself will be an everlasting light (ib. lx. 19-20).”
– Jewish Encyclopedia on the Sun
Ditto with Father Kuchinsky that this is an excellent post.
Very good commentary, as usual, Monsignor. I don’t know whether you have come across the following bit about the proposal of a solar eclipse as the cause of the Paschal darkness, but here it is:
The Jewish Passover occurs always at the full moon during the month of Nisan. But the full moon cannot cause a solar eclipse: it is on the far side of the earth, rather than the side facing the sun. There could have been a lunar eclipse during the Passover, but not a solar eclipse.
Of course, the darkening of the sun mentioned explicitly by Luke could have some other natural cause, and could certainly have a supernatural cause. But it would not be a natural solar eclipse, in any event.
I would like to know if the word that St. Luke used in the Gospel,ἐκλιπόντος (eklipontos), is the same word that Ptolemy used in his Almagest. 50 cents says that it is the same or very similar word. Excellent comment by you.
In the natural world, there are two material objects that help us think about God: the sun and the ocean.
The sun is, in some sense, light and the sun gives light. The sun nourishes life. The sun cannot be touched and yet we can feel its warmth on our faces.
The ocean is bounded to the eye, but no matter how much of it we can see, we know that there is much more that we can’t see. I think some wag or saint once described God as an “infinite sea of being.”
A planet is like a person. It is self-contained, has life, has its own orbit, as do people. There was even a song called, “Another Girl, Another Planet.”
In the total eclipse of the sun, it is an image of God nature (the sun) perfectly lining up with human nature (a planet, the moon). So, it isn’t the biggest stretch to see that as a metaphor, fashioned by God, of the God-man.
The moon though is dead. So, to continue the metaphor, it isn’t the biggest stretch to see the total eclipse of the sun by the moon as a metaphor, fashioned by God, of the the triumph of His Son on the cross.
Hence, one reason for the appeal of understanding the darkness as an eclipse in the modern sense of the word.
Thank you again for a beautiful reflection.
I agree with you regarding reaching for a deeper, spiritual
and salvific meaning.
Not to explain the cause of the darkness attested to simply
in terms of science, there are just to mention, possible causes on the natural level (in His Providence of course!) – earthquakes, volcanic
eruption, dust/sand storms . . . [science would also seem to show that it is unlikely the darkness was caused by a solar eclipse such as we had today].
Now, back to your fine explanation and the post by Nick!
God bless you Monsignor.
Darkness comes up in scripture often. When I think of difficult times in my life, there is a darkness that surrounds the memory whether there was sun during those times or not.
The lack of goodness brings darkness throughout scripture. The 9th plague that the Egyptians experienced was not experienced by the Israelites. Can that be explained? All things are possible with God.
When light is the thing we long for when trapped in the darkness of a cave, it seems logical that God would give us darkness (scientifically or not, God causes both, both are miracles) knowing we will search for the Light. There is always that moment of light, always a resurrection sunrise.
Things are beginning to look pretty dark to me in these days. Great hope stirs inside knowing God is the Light.
Thank you Msgr.
Thank you once again for an excellent post. Years ago, I was convinced that the darkness on Good Friday was due to an eclipse. However, over time I am more and more convinced that this was a supernatural event. In line with the scriptures that you quoted, there was another statement by Our Lord at the time of his arrest: “When I was daily with you in the temple, you did not stretch forth your hands against me: but this is your hour and the power of darkness.” Luke 22:53.
If ever there was a time when the power of darkness reach its maximum intensity, surely it was at the time Our Lord was crucified, suffered in excruciating agony for those 3 hours, and then died.
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