At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) (Mark 15:33-34)
There are many different ways to approach a biblical text in order to help understand what it means. These various methods of interpretation (‘hermeneutics’) begin with different questions that guide how we approach and listen to the biblical text. Not all approaches are created equal. There are more and less faithful methods of reading the Bible.
Perhaps one of the best approaches begins by asking, “Where else does this show up in scripture?” When we encounter a word, concept, theme, or character in scripture that seems puzzling, one of the ways of trying to understand it is looking to the immediate context, but another is to look at its canonical context. This is asking, “Where else does this show up in Scripture?” In the above passage, we could ask this about “three in the afternoon,” “crying out in a loud voice,” or even the quotation from Psalm 22. In each instance, the canonical context can help illumine the immediate context of the Bible.
As Jesus hangs on the cross in Mark 15, we are told that “darkness came over the whole land.” Where else have we seen darkness cover the entire land? There are at least two primary instances of overwhelming darkness. The first is in the opening verses of the Bible:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
If the creation account is in mind when the darkness comes over the land of Judah, we are being told that in Jesus’ death, we are being brought back to the root of creation. Descending into darkness, in his death, Jesus Christ is restarting, renewing creation. It is then no accident that when the third day began the women appeared at the empty tomb to find the Sun of Righteousness risen from the grave (And God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light). If we are intended to see creation in the blanketing darkness, then the cross begins a new creation in Christ.
As much as I love this image of Christ as the light that dawns out of the darkness, there is another image of darkness in Scripture:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt – darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived. (Exodus 10:21-23)
Without necessarily excluding the creation image, the darkness covering Judah in Mark 15 more clearly echoes the plague of darkness in Egypt. The duration of three days, the stretching out of hands, as well as the blindness of the majority of the population have deep resonance with the story of the crucifixion. In this way, the darkness communicates both judgment and deliverance. The darkness over Egypt was part of God’s judgment on Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, it was a demonstration of his power as the one true God. The darkness was also part of God’s work in delivering his people from bondage. It is significant to note that the next plague mentioned is the death of the first born, which includes the blood of the Passover. In the very next verses in Mark, God’s only begotten Son will die and his blood will be on the wood of the cross.
What is the significance of the cross? It is new creation. It is judgment on all the evil and sin of this world, all the false gods that keep us in bondage. It is the instrument of God’s deliverance. It is all these things and it is clearly visible for those who have eyes to see.