Similarly, the prophet Isaiah states that “the moon shall blush, and the sun shall be ashamed when the Lord of hosts shall reign in mount Sion, and in Jerusalem, and shall be glorified in the sight of his ancients” (Isaias 24:23). Without exception, in all these texts, the darkening of the sun is associated with divine intervention in history—either through judgment applied to the chosen people in a specific context or through the universal judgment that will take place at the end of the world.
The image of the sun that “became black as sackcloth of hair” has never ceased to fascinate me. If we contemplate it carefully, we see not so much a solar eclipse, but a covering, a hiding of the sun with a surface full of small openings through which light occasionally seeps intermittently.
The texts of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—from the New Testament recount the sign of the darkening of the sun, mentioned by our Lord, Jesus Christ himself, in his prophecies regarding the end of history. Evangelist Matthew extensively describes that “the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven shall be moved” (Matthew 24:29), a series of cosmic events echoed by Evangelist Mark (13:24-25). Evangelist Luke expresses it more succinctly, stating that “there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars” (Luke 21:25). As we can see, there are numerous instances where the darkening of the sun is mentioned. However, the most intriguing of all is found in the biblical Book of Revelation:
“And I saw, when he had opened the sixth seal, and behold there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair: and the whole moon became as blood: And the stars from heaven fell upon the earth, as the fig tree casteth its green figs when it is shaken by a great wind” (Revelation 6:12-13)
The image of the sun that “became black as sackcloth of hair” has never ceased to fascinate me. If we contemplate it carefully, we see not so much a solar eclipse, but a covering, a hiding of the sun with a surface full of small openings through which light occasionally seeps intermittently. The inevitable question is clear: what is the significance of this mysterious covering of the sun? To decipher possible answers, we must first consider the interpretations of the Saints and Doctors of the Church regarding this apocalyptic passage.
The seven seals have always been considered as seven ages that only God made Man, Jesus Christ, the Lamb described in chapters 5 and 6 of the Apocalypse, will unfold throughout the period that begins with the establishment of the militant Church on earth. Regarding the sixth seal, one of the most important interpreters of Holy Scripture, Saint Bede the Venerable (c.672 or 673–735), says that it refers to the events of that period of history “which is going to occur at the time of the antichrist.”[i] In line with this interpretation, the illustrious medieval scholar, Abbot Alcuin of York (735–804), asserts that “by the earthquake we should understand the last persecution under the Antichrist.”[ii] Saint Victorinus of Pettau (? –304) and the Burgundian Saint Cesar of Arles (c.470 or 471–543) maintain the same view.[iii] However, as we have already seen in the article on the interpretation of Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman, the type of persecution is a subject that can receive nuanced readings.
The moon—a symbol of the Church, which receives its light from God, its “sun” —, turning like blood, is considered the sign of the martyrdom to which the faithful of true faith will be subjected in the era of the Antichrist.
The moon—a symbol of the Church, which receives its light from God, its “sun” —, turning like blood, is considered the sign of the martyrdom to which the faithful of true faith will be subjected in the era of the Antichrist. Saint Bede seems to suggest that the most intense aspect of persecution is not, however, related to its physical dimension but to its spiritual dimension. First, he establishes a mystical correlation between the opening of the sixth seal and the crucifixion of the Savior Christ: “The world is shaken with darkness and fear, as when the Lord was crucified on the sixth day of the week (my emphasis).”
As we have seen in the case of the interpretation of the three days of darkness prophesied by Venerable Anna Maria Taigi, these can refer to a period in the history of the world and the struggling Church—the era of the Antichrist—that symbolically corresponds to the three days inaugurated by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. But what is the significance of the darkening of the sun? The commentary of Saint Bede will enlighten us once again:
“This is, as if the power of Christ were hidden, or His doctrine temporarily obscured, or covered by a veil, when the servants of Antichrist are brought to attack the servants of Christ.”
What do we understand from here? That the sun symbolizes the power of God and His supernatural Revelation (i.e., “His doctrine”)—hidden by the sackcloth of hair. Are the hair strands “the servants of Antichrist”? No, not at all. To understand this correctly we must contemplate the image of the hair strands to extract their full meaning. Hair adorns our head—strands emerge from our scalp. What do we immediately think of when we focus on this detail? Our own thoughts. Don’t we say that all sorts of thoughts “cross our minds”? What kind of thoughts? They can be neuter––so to say. Like „I am going to eat.” Or positive, heavenly, like „I am going to confess and do penance in order to amend my life.” But they can also be negative, evil, heretical thoughts. Do you remember the moment when Saint Peter, the first pope in history, tries to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem to give His life? Here is the answer that the Savior gives him:
“Go behind me, Satan, because thou savorest not the things that are of God, but that are of men” (Mark 8:33)
At this point, the Greek text has been of the greatest help to me. Because the verb translated into English as “savorest” is φρονέω (phroneó), which simply and clearly means “to have understanding, to think.” In other words, when Peter tries to prevent Jesus Christ from going to give His life on the Cross for our salvation, he has in mind human ideas, human thoughts of demonic inspiration. That is, thoughts that oppose the divine will and understanding of things. These thoughts, which we can certainly call heretical, are the “strands of hair” that, woven in the form of that “sackcloth,” end up darkening the light of the sun—that is, the supernatural Revelation that illuminates our minds through the Christian Faith.
The first interpretation refers to the sum of heresies that, in the form of the “sackcloth of hair” (i.e., neo-modernism), obscure the Orthodox Doctrine revealed by God. The second concerns the moral dimension of the lives of Christians: their life appears darkened in the eyes of the reprobates who perceive it as miserable.
This is why Saint Bede can speak of “the servants of Antichrist,” i.e. heretics with their own ideas and interpretations of the faith, who attack the servants of Christ, those who remain faithful to the true faith. The “atmosphere” described in Book of Revelation when the events after the opening of the sixth seal are recounted is one of total war. A war waged between those who keep the Orthodox Faith (= Sun) and those who promote the countless heresies brought together in the sack of hair that symbolizes the dominant neo-Modernism in which we are submerged as under the waters of a tsunami.
Without denying this interpretation, which he surely knew very well, Alcuin of York proposes another one that can simultaneously be valid. It concerns the “lifestyle” of those faithful to the Gospel, meaning their way of living according to the values of life (where parents accept all their children), chastity (where purity, modesty, good manners and modest attire are respected), and poverty (where the transient goods of this world are strictly subordinated to the spiritual goods of eternal life). However, this Christian lifestyle is unbearable and unacceptable––Alcuin argues––in the eyes of those who refuse to repent:
“The sun may also indicate the shining life of those who preach. So in the last times the sun will be as sackcloth of hair because the shining life of those who preach will appear rough and despicable in the eyes of the reprobates.”
The two proposed interpretations complement each other. The first refers to the sum of heresies that, in the form of the “sackcloth of hair” (i.e., neo-modernism), obscure the Orthodox Doctrine revealed by God. The second concerns the moral dimension of the lives of Christians: their life, shining through the values of the Ten Commandments, which are permanently embraced, appears darkened in the eyes of the reprobates who perceive it as miserable – rough like a sack, or like a penitential garment such as the cilices worn in medieval monasteries.
Sometimes it seems that everything fits down to the detail. But if so, that could mean that the sixth seal was broken, wouldn’t it? This is a crucial question that must be answered with a wise dose of prudence.
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[i] Saint Bede’s commentary on the 6th chapter of Apocalypse can be read here: https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/revelation/st-bede-on-revelation/chapter-1/chapter-2/chapter-3/chapter-4/chapter-5/chapter-6
[Accessed: 11 November 2023]
[ii] Comentariul Abatelui Alcuin poate fi citit integral aici: https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/revelation/alcuin-of-york-commentary-on-revelation [Accessed: 11 November 2023]
[iii] See Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Edited and Translated with an Introduction and Notes by William C. Weinrich, IVP Academic, 2011.