Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Were you there when the sun refused to shine? 

So our choir sang on Good Friday during the veneration of the Cross. The Reproaches are sung first, but more music is needful so other hymns are sung, of which the most haunting is the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Other verses are easily added: Were you there when the sun refused to shine? 

There will be a solar eclipse today, April 8, and the “path of totality” will include major cities such as Dallas, Indianapolis, and Montreal. Ontario’s Niagara peninsula is expecting a million visitors to view the eclipse and has declared a precautionary state of emergency to deal with the congestion. Several American states and counties have done the same. Many offices and schools are closing. 

If the sun really did not shine it would be a severe emergency, but it would have to be for a lot longer than the few minutes of an eclipse. The sun actually “refuses” to shine quite often. Nightfall comes each day.

The Gospels record that there was darkness across the land from noon until three o’clock on Good Friday, as Jesus hung on the cross (Matt. 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44–45). It wasn’t a solar eclipse—it was the wrong phase of the moon for that—and eclipses don’t last that long in any case. There may have been a lunar eclipse—the “blood moon”—but while evocative, that is a different matter.

The eclipse this year falls at the end of the Easter Octave, and Easter is the great liturgical battle between light and darkness. The coincidence of the eclipse and Easter is an invitation to think about light and darkness in the way that Christians distinctively do. 

The great vigil of Easter makes that clear. The church is dark when the new fire is blessed and the Easter candle is lit. The triplex cry goes up: Christ our Light! The light that comes into the world is not the enduring sun but the eternal Son (John 1:9). The light that enlightens every man is not sunlight, but Christ the light, dramatically apparent as the flame of the Easter candle is passed taper to taper throughout the church. 

Ancient pagans worshipped the sun, because without the sun life was not possible. Christians worship the God who created the sun, and thus the first reading at the Easter Vigil is the account of creation. It reminds us that the first creative word of God is “let there be light.” That light has only one possible source: God. The creation of the sun comes on the fourth day. 

Why was darkness suitable for three hours on that Friday afternoon? Because the true source of light was dying. 

Also read at the Easter Vigil is the Exodus account of the children of Israel being delivered from Egypt. At night a great pillar of fire (Exod. 13:21) provides them light. Moses had previously encountered the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), which was aflame but not consumed. The pillar of fire is just fire, with nothing consumed. It is not a burning tree. What is the source of the flame? God himself has provided, analogous to the fiat lux of the first day. 

The most remarkable biblical light comes from the place from which no light can come—the tomb. A grave is wholly dark, and light is utterly useless for the dead. Yet the fiat lux of creation comes again on the “first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1, John 20:1), and light comes from inside the tomb into the world. 

One of the most dramatic liturgical rituals anywhere occurs at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday. The Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the sepulchre and emerges with the miraculous Holy Fire, which then spreads from the tomb to the congregation pressing in upon it. 

Death on a cross eclipsed the original light coming into the world. Yet eclipses pass, and the light shines anew, as it will today, and as it did from the tomb. The darkness has struggled against the light, but has not overcome it (John 1:5). The power of darkness has its hour (Luke 22:52)—or three hours—but the light cannot be definitively eclipsed. 

The fiat lux of creation is, read through the light of Easter, not primarily about creation, but redemption. The fiat lux refers most profoundly not to the light of creation, but to the first day of the week when the light came from the tomb, the light through which all things were originally made (John 1:2). In the beginning light was diffused directly from the divine presence; from the tomb is the “light that was the life of men” (John 1:4). 

The fiat lux is more about Easter than it is about Eden.

The eclipses provided by the astronomical cycles are relatively rare. The eclipses of creation and fall, sin and redemption, are constant. They are only more evident to us at Eastertide—and when the sun refuses to shine.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things. 

Image by A013231 licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles