On The Crucifixion Darkness
Throughout the course of its long, mostly salutary, yet often sanguinary existence, the laws of nature—as well as those of man—have frequently been suspended for the benefit of the church. This, I think, is a strange phenomenon of which we’ve simply grown to be accepting. It’s a part of an exalted story, an incredible myth to which, in the fullness of our devotion, we’re happily accustomed and at whose details we’d rather not cast a penetrating and suspicious eye. That said, it remains one by which, with an annual occurrence, I’m both amused and bewildered, entertained and completely struck. This feeling is especially acute and overwhelming as the two most supernatural of the Christian holidays, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, come and go without the vocalization of a rational man’s appeal.
So many dictates of the natural world by which the rest of us, as humble mortals, all join in being encumbered, so many unremitting impositions to which we, as simple organisms, are all bound to be submissive, haven’t a like influence within the walls and behind the sacristies of that high and mighty church. The laws of nature simply gain no admittance to the wine-drenched veins and the pulsating pulpits of its heart. Unadorned with popish vestments and shorn of inscrutable creeds, we, rather than it, are the playthings of the forces of life. The church, on the other hand, seems to be immune from their peremptory sway.
Like monkeys do we dance beneath the strings of gravity, biology, and the volatility and the thrust of chemical change. Tighter or looser, our fortunes are tied unbendingly to the temper of their pull. All the while, the church, in the lofty station of its high repose, manipulates in its own hand this trinity of a force to which it alone is superior. These laws of nature, it seems, have been barred from entry into its peculiar house of God, that house whose founder was but a precocious, if not notorious Jew. This humble Nazarene, this curious carpenter of middling, if not unremarkable occupational skill, was often the person—not quite yet the deity—to whom all of these acts of suspension are originally attributed.
In his time, among the events to which the predictable patterns of nature offered but little answer, the lame walked, the blind saw, the hungry ate, and the infirm were healed. Demons were expelled, devils out-smarted, evils averted, and the dead—intolerant of the idea of an eternity from which there was to be no foreseeable escape—were raised from the shallow confines of their graves. Corpses were exhumed, angels called and shouted, and the restored gaiety of the spirits set upon themselves to dance. The bones of the deceased, stiffened by their years, rattled anew and stretched beyond their reach; they sought, as in a time prior to this, the happy company of the living among whom they once proudly numbered their own. Revisiting the earth beneath which they were now so quietly buried, they looked for the society of that species by whom they might, as in their memory, be made to feel the rush of life.
Fish, now exiguous, were made in an instant to be abundant, while the surface density of the water from which they were retrieved was so strengthened, that it bore without difficulty the ambling tread of a man. Yet this man wasn’t just any man, a mere face in the crowd, a regular Tom, Dick, or Harry by whom, without even the slightest acknowledgement of his stale and boring presence, we might casually pass. No ebbing ocean, despite the latticed-strength of its dense salinity (upon which, in some distant and allegedly “dead” sea, a restful bather can leisurely float), could ever hope to support so heavy a load as was he. The waves would simply give way under the influence of his mass. If not his corpulent physical makeup (to whose unprecedented increase, our modern eating habits are dangerously conducive), the bulk of his ego will undoubtedly cut the surface in two. His stomach, abdominous, his self-image, ponderous, he’d just as quickly plunge to the ocean’s floor, never to re-surface and gasp the living air again.
He, on the contrary, was altogether different. Jesus of Nazareth, that single man of whom all men partook, with whom all men walked, by whom all were saved, was a feather-light essence in the midst of the indelicate mass.
His was a figure above which, in a direction pointed toward the endless and unknowable heavens, an ethereal string from the throne of God was suspended, by whose taut inspiration he was driven to move. His person, therefore, was one beneath whose gentle and confident gait, the molecular bonds of two hydrogen, one oxygen, and countless aqueous particles weren’t likely to break. The habitation of neither water, nor land, nor sky was, for this reason, inaccessible to him. The ocean of the air above him, that of the sea below, he spent what might be called his most important years in the firmament of the earth. Every environment, even those most uncongenial to the limited resources and nature of man, were potential residencies of which he alone could be the occupant. He was, after all, the preordained son of man, the epitome of man, the weightiest of men, the mysteriously begotten boy wonder of Mary and God who might exist everywhere, in everything, and at any time.
The former, a semi-divinity in her own right, was the helpful vessel in which the latter’s spirit grew. Mary’s was the body—unblemished by the impotent, perhaps absent touch of the ageing and avuncular Joseph to whom, doubtless without the physical delights of the glory of wedlock, she was dutifully married—out of which an infant god was to fall. Hers would be the numinous uterus, as I like to call it, from which this being would emerge and about which, in later and Scholastic times, so much would be written and said. While it’s agreed with universal consent that her virginity never suffered, Mary was, nevertheless, the immaculate and fertile surrogate of whom Yahweh, an impressively virile father, made remarkable good use. A creator, a warrior, and finally a fertility god—demonstrating, all the while, his puissant aptitude in every field—Yahweh was so philoprogenitive, that he birthed three monotheisms out of one.
Yet what are we to make of those nettlesome laws of nature, particularly as they apply (or don’t apply, as is the case) to the son of God and man as he suffered on the cross? On Good Friday, between the hours of twelve and three, the land was shrouded, or so it’s claimed, by what exegetes call the “Crucifixion Darkness”. It is, admittedly, an ominous phrase. Jesus, for all his manly endurance, hadn’t yet succumbed to the exposure, to the asphyxiation, nor to the fatigue of which the crucifix was so menacingly productive, but his expiry was distressingly near. He’d been nailed to the crucifix about three hours prior and, three hours hence, he’d be as good as dead. At around the time of noon, at what you might call the halftime of his marathon of torture, the radiance of the sun was blotted out. The land was obscured in a preternatural darkness and the hills of Roman Palestine were covered in shade. An eclipse, as we might conceive it, persisted in this province until the hour of his death.
And yet, this was an event—unconcealed, one must assume, from the inquisitive eyes of, if not the rest of the inhabited earth, then certainly the regions by which it was immediately neighbored—of which neither sage, savant, philosopher nor poet of the Greek or Roman world had a thing to say. These ostensible men of learning and science, for whose supine inattention to this miracle of the passion, there really is no conceivable defense, must’ve been sleeping that day. Should we, then, revoke from them the honorifics to which, as a consequence of their eloquent works, they’ve been entitled? How are we to measure their sizable neglect, into whose gaps we stumble and fall? Would not this miracle, if encountered in their wakeful state, have been evident not only to them, but to every man—be he crude of eye or of keen perception? How might we explain, in the presence of so extraordinary a phenomenon, their unswerving commitments to their day jobs and their lesson plans toward which their days were so habitually directed? Were they so inattentive to the external world of sense, and so immured in that of their own person and reason, that they couldn’t, if only for three hours, extricate themselves from this inner realm, and look to that awful sight in the land of the Jews?
In an age not only of history, but of science, a time during which the great Seneca and Pliny both wrote and lived, this crucifixion darkness, this preternatural cloud through which not a single ray of light peaked, excited little curiosity in the Greco-Roman mind. Indeed, it was hardly noticed, save for those later scribblers who, perhaps retroactively, wished it to be part of a dogma to which they hoped to attach their names. This event, international in its scope, if not completely hemispheric, wouldn’t have been one to which our astute and stoic Seneca, and our punctilious and elder Pliny, would’ve been insensitive. They would’ve known about it, they would’ve thought about it, they would’ve talked about it, as they did nearly all other things. Immediately would they have felt its effects, as they were the recipients of the best intelligence that then circulated around Rome. Yet they said not a word about it, despite their voluminous works on all phenomena by which nature makes herself known. These, mind you, were men to whom such matters as earthquakes (also alleged to have occurred at the time of Jesus’ death), meteors, floods, comets, and—yes—eclipses were intimately familiar. These were topics about which, especially in the case of Pliny, they wrote at length.