A Voice from the Darkness PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Sunday, 14 March 2010 18:47

Creation did not come perfectly formed from the hand of God.  First Yahweh made a formless, empty darkness, a formless dark emptiness.  Then He called for light.  Creation begins with darkness giving way to light, and in the Bible darkness is typically a signal that the process is running in reverse, that creation is being undone.  When the Bible describes an end, it describes it as a reversion to darkness (Isaiah 5:30; 8:22; 9:2; Zephaniah 1:15; Ezekiel 32:7).

When Judah’s lights go out, Yahweh preserves a remnant; Yahweh brings an end to Pharaoh and puts out the sun and moon, but Egypt is here still today.  Death is different.  Death is utter darkness.  Death is the shroud that lays over all people (Isaiah 25).  In the allegory of death at the end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon speaks of the sunlight and moon and stars being darkened as the old man moves toward death.  When Jesus speaks of people being handed over to eternal death, he describes it as a place of “outer darkness” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Darkness is the darkness of un-creation.  All darkness is the darkness of death.

All this is happening at Golgotha, during the suffering and death of Jesus.  For three hours, in the middle of the day, Jesus hangs on the cross in utter darkness.  The sun is blotted out, and moon does not give her light.  The clock stops for the Jews and the Romans who have put Jesus on the cross.

Out of that darkness comes a voice.  This too follows the creation story.  Into the original darkness, Yahweh spoke the Almighty fiat, “Let there be light.”  That is not the word from the darkness of Golgotha.  Jesus utters no fiats.  Instead, His cry is the anguished prayer of a faithful, righteous man who has been abandoned by his friends, surrounded by bestial enemies, whose hands and feet have been pierced, whose clothes have been removed and distributed among his enemies, who finally is abandoned even by God.  Jesus’ voice does not dispel the darkness.  His words instead give audible shape to the very darkness that surrounds it.

Jesus’ cry recalls another incident in which darkness descended and put out the lights.  The ninth plague in Egypt was a plague of darkness.  The darkness came over all the land of Egypt, a “thick darkness” so thorough that Yahweh describes it as a “darkness which may be felt” (Exodus 10:21-22).  Israel has become an Egypt, and the God of Israel is sending a plague of darkness on His own people like the plague of darkness that afflicted Egypt.  The plague that followed the plague of darkness, the Passover slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt, also took place in the darkness, a night.  During the night of Passover, as the Israelites celebrated the Passover within their houses of refuge, marked with blood, the angel of death slaughtered all the firstborn of Egypt.  Out of the gloom of Passover night a “great cry” arose from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:30), a cry of lamentation and anguish in the darkness and gloom.

Israel has become an Egypt, and if Israel is an Egypt, then her firstborn must die.  That can only be Jesus.  The cry that pierces the darkness at Golgotha is a voice of lamentation, lamentation and bitter weeping, the shriek of Egypt mourning her firstborn.  Jesus is the Passover Lamb.  He is the true Son, the true Israel.  But here on the cross, He stands in for all the Egyptian-Jews who crucify Him, and He takes the cry of Israel on His own lips: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

This voice from the darkness doesn’t sound like the voice of the Creator.  But it is.  In this darkness, the world is actually coming to an end, and a new world is beginning.  This is the great and awesome day of Yahweh, and on this day everything Israel had been hoping for begins to happen.   She hoped for the Spirit, and when Jesus cries out and He “yields up His Spirit.”  Jesus is Elijah on the cross, and as He departs He bestows a double measure of the Spirit on us.

Israel hoped for access to Yahweh, and when Jesus dies, God tears the veil of the temple from top to bottom.  The temple has been a barrier, but it is no longer a barrier.  Through the flesh of Jesus, we can draw near in the Most Holy PlaceIsrael had been hoping that the world would be shaken, the nations shaken loose so that the Kingdom of God could come in.  When Jesus dies, the land is shaken by an earthquake.  Earthquakes accompany Yahweh’s approach, usually as a warrior (Judges 5:4; 2 Samuel 22:8; Psalm 68:8).  The death of Jesus is the coming of the warrior of Yahweh, gaining His greatest triumph, His triumph over death by death.

Israel hoped above all for resurrection, and when Jesus dies, the tombs of the saints are opened (Matthew 27:51-53).  Standing in a valley of dry bones, Ezekiel called on the wind or breath or spirit, and that spirit blows over the dead and dry bones; there is an earthquake; the wind gives them breath, and the dead rise.  This is a vision of the restoration of Israel and Judah from the grave of exile, and that vision is being fulfilled and repeated in the death of Jesus.  Already at His Death, Jesus breaks open Sheol and shines the light of life into the darkness of the tomb.  Seeing all this, the centurion and his soldiers confess Jesus as Son of God (Matthew 27:54).  This too fulfills Israel’s hope for the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion.  The centurion and his men are the firstfruits of the Psalm’s promise that “all the families of the nations shall worship before Him” (Psalm 22:27).

At the death of Jesus, everything is shaken: The heavenly veil of the temple is torn, the earth shakes, the tombs under the earth split open and the dead rise.  But at the death of Jesus, the world begins to be remade.  In the darkness of uncreation and death, Jesus cries out like the thunder, and the world is shaken down and begins again.

The best scene in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ occurs during Jesus march along the via dolorosa.  He has been beaten to a Gibsonesque pulp.  He can’t carry His portion of the cross, and He can barely walk.  He stumbles and falls, and Mary His mother comes to Him to wipe the blood from His face.  He speaks to her: “See, Mother, I am making all things new.”

This is absurd.  This beaten and bloody man, stumbling under His cross, going to a gruesome execution, crying out in anguish in the thick darkness: This man is making all things new?  It’s laughable.  But the gospel declares just this: Jesus overcomes the darkness by entering into the darkness.  There is no rupture in the Trinity here; God doesn’t cease to be Triune for the few hours that Jesus dies on the cross.  To speak of the “death of the Son of God” is not to say that the Son of God ceased to exist.  To say that the Son of God died means instead that the He entered fully into the God-forsaken condition of humanity, entered fully into the gloom of the grave, so that He could explode it from the inside with the word of a new creation.

Let there be light: That’s the way the world was made.  Much to our disappointment, though, this is not the way worlds are remade.  The world was remade, death began to run in reverse, when the Servant of Yahweh cried out in the darkness of death.  Still now, for us as well, worlds are remade from crosses, by men who cry out from a gloomy chaos, when faithful and obedient servants of God join with Jesus in crying out in the darkness to the God who said, and will always say, “Let there be light.”

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