'It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed...'
I'm writing this in the eerie light of the eclipse two weeks before Good Friday. It's a quarter past nine and I've just had to switch the desk lamp back on. The birdsong outside is muted. The temperature has dropped. The atmosphere is ominous and foreboding.
No wonder that in earlier ages, an eclipse was believed to presage something momentous. Something like the death of a king.
Three of the Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark and Luke – report an eclipse as Jesus was dying on the cross. Hours earlier, soldiers had placed a crown of thorns on his head and dressed him in a robe of royal purple. Pilate had placed him on the judge's seat, with the words 'Behold your King!' Now, this King was in the throes of death. The darkened skies – whether real, or vividly imagined – signalled the passing of an age. With Jesus would die the hopes and ambitions of those who saw in him the hope for the freedom and victory of their nation; those who greeted him with palm leaves and praises when he'd entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
But the darkness held greater secrets. Repeatedly, in the Old Testament, 'clouds and thick darkness' represented the mysterious dwelling-place and presence of God; God, who was at work even in this darkest of hours. Creation, too, sprang to life out of darkness: God said 'Let there be light!' and there was light. And an eclipse wasn't only about death. It might also foreshadow the birth of a new king.
The darkness of Good Friday switches off the light on the old, tired creation, and ushers in a new one full of hope. It signals the death of earthly striving for tyrannical, violent power by any who wish to live according to God's ways, and announces the King of eternity. It's time to look forward to Easter – and to welcome the risen Christ as our King.