In this era, of technological advance exploration of the universe by astronomical methods has revealed objects of awesome beauty beyond anything previously devised by human imagination in far distant places. Rather closer to planet earth, however, the more local spectacle of an eclipse of the sun is now enjoyed by billions of people. It's a matter of interest, fascinating not just to scientists but to the public at large. It's a far cry from how eclipses were perceived in biblical times.
Cosmic darkness in the mind of the prophets was a sign of the approaching Day of the Lord, when all humankind would be called to give an account of itself in the face of divine judgement. He who caused light to shine before bringing all things in being, would cause darkness to return.
"And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud And the moon will not give its light.(Ezekiel 32:7)
"For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light." (Isaiah 13:10)
The advent of darkness would be an occasion of fear and trembling, not only for people but also for the cosmos. The prophet Joel makes much of this, apparently drawing on the eclipse experience, but going further speaking of all consuming darkness, twice mentioning the disappearance of starlight.
Before them the earth quakes, The heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness. (Joel 2:10)
"The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Joel 2:31)
"The sun and moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness." (Joel 3:15)
No stars are visible if there's a mist on a moonless night, and in the absence of artificial light, sky and land merge, the horizon disappears. Such disorientation arouses great fear and a sense of complete vulnerability in all who rely on landmarks and other visual clues to know if they are safe or not.
Like the prophets of Israel, Mark and Matthew speak about the coming day of the Lord and the end of the world in dramatic terms. Whenever it will happen, it will be preceded by upheaval, conflict and dramatic environmental changes, all heralded by eclipse imagery.
"In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give light" (Mark 13:24)
"But immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Matthew 24:29
The Letter to the Hebrews urges readers to heed and obey God's voice, citing Psalm 95:7b-8a
"We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, as has just been said: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion." (Heb 3:14-15)
See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, at that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." (Heb 12:25-6)
The sound and content of what God's voice utters has such immense power that it has an impact on the whole of the created order. While these passages present a very anthropomorphic image of the divine, the writer was not so naive. The utterance of God's voice is the Word through which all things have the being, their meaning and purpose.
The darkness at noon that envelops the crucifixion of Jesus is not directly associated with an eclipse or any other natural phenomenon, but from the darkness Jesus utters the prayer of the persecuted man on the verge of death from Psalm 22:1.
"Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt 27:45-6)
Quotation of this phrase draws attention to Jesus' sense of God-forsakenness, yet to listeners well versed in Hebrew scripture, it is moment of eclipse, for this Psalm that plumbs the depths of inner darkness re-emerges into the light of trust, appealing to God for deliverance and praising God for his grace in vindicating his people and delivering them from their tribulations - eventually.
"I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him;and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard." (Psalm 22:22-4)
The final book of the New Testament scriptures, contains an extensive detailed working out of the Day of the Lord. Its strange literary style has some of the characteristics of prophetic oracles and visions disguising a message of victorious hope and endurance in the face of persecution. Its Greek name Apocalypse means 'from what is hidden', a disclosure of secret knowledge of God's ways.
It is not the only 'apocalyptic' text to emerge from a violent era of political pessimism and social upheaval, but it rises above despair in its affirmation of the victory of the resurrected Christ over sin, evil and the power of death - a victory of ultimate significance for both heaven and earth. Once more the motif of eclipse is linked with environmental catastrophe, conflict turmoil and suffering.
"I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood " (Rev 6:12)
"The fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were struck, so that a third of them would be darkened and the day would not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way." (Rev 8:12)
But at the end of story envisioned by John the seer, un-eclipsable light in all its fullness returns, with the re-creation of heaven and earth in which humankind and God will dwell together eternally.
"There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever." (Rev 22:5)