Darkness at Noon


By Wayne Allensworth

The period of totality was approaching. We watched and waited and glanced up when the clouds broke above us deep in the heart of the Texas hill country. I craned my neck and felt the way I had when I was drawn to look upward symbolically at the heavens by the Sistine Chapel ceiling, my neck aching, but not thinking about it. Caught up in a unique moment in the flow of time. A sliver of the sun still showed above us. A dazzling slice of light. Then the clouds passed over us again, and we were back to waiting, watching, and hoping that we would see the eclipse.

The ancients believed that an eclipse was an omen, a sign from the gods. In ancient China, so I’ve read, the Chinese believed that the great cosmic dragon, the force of chaos that lies beneath the order that became the universe, was devouring the sun during an eclipse. And they banged drums and shouted at the beast to frighten it away. The sun would emerge again, and the drums would stop. Rock carvings from prehistoric times depict eclipses and comets being hurled across the sky. The ancients retained their sense of wonder, and one can imagine now what feeling of awe came over them in witnessing a cosmic event.

The ancient Greeks were both awestruck by an eclipse and, characteristically, curious to understand. And sometime in the centuries before Christ, they began to calculate the approach of a solar or lunar eclipse. But they apparently did not cease to attribute them to the forces that animated the world and propelled the celestial bodies in their courses, forces both irresistible and indicative of the divine.

And then the darkness fell in the middle of our day, and we could see the totality of the eclipse in all its strange and marvelous glory. And the temperature dropped, and we felt cooled in the sudden darkness. A strange and awesome silence ever so briefly halted all the noise around us. And the birds stopped their flights and their chattering in the trees so near us. And we waited and watched and I, for one, released all the mental baggage of modernity and felt, in the way that modern people can, just a stir of the numinous sensation that raised goosebumps and prompted the tingling on the skin of our distant ancestors. And I recalled in a flash all the unlikely events that had prevented the universe collapsing back on itself, expanding at just the correct rate, and all the infinitesimal near misses that made the stars and our lives possible.

The universe was going about its business as it had for countless eons.

An omen?

Darkness at noon.

From Mark, Chapter 15:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)

…And with a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain from the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he had died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

For as long as humans have wondered at the world, and pondered their ultimate fate, they have seen the seasons, and the dawn of each day, and, yes, an eclipse, as a sign. A sign of death and rebirth. Of the ultimate cycle of life and eternal beginnings. And of the grandeur and power of the God who stood behind it all. Each a small Easter event. A resurrection.

It arrived and passed, a small reminder of eternity. And it left me with that sense of wondering and of gratitude felt by the wisest among us for as long as humans have lived. The dragon had not swallowed the sun. We experienced a brief journey to the underworld, and then a rise and a rebirth. If we are wise, we can learn from that. If we are aware, and pay proper attention, there is deep meaning in our experiences.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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Wayne Allensworth

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