Monday, January 3, 2011

Apocalyptic Imagery


Here's an open question to start off the new year.

Aaron's Christmas Eve post, particularly his description of how the natural world rejoiced at Christ's birth, how the very molecules danced in delight, brought to mind something I have been pondering for a while now. I'm sure one of you literary types out there knows more about this than I do and will be kind enough to enlighten me.

One prominent trait of apocalyptic literature seems to be that key moments in man's history are accompanied by and reflected by similar events in nature. Why is such imagery so powerful?

Here's an example from Lk. 21:24-27, when Jesus speaks about a great persecution; he predicts that

They will fall by the edge of the sword,
and be made captive in all nations,
And Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles
until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Then, immediately after speaking about the fate of men, he spaks about the signs in nature:

And there will be signs in the sun
and moon and stars,
and distress of nations on the earth in despair
at the roaring of the sea and waves,
Men fainting from fear and foreboding of what
is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they'll see the Son of Man
coming on a cloud with power and great glory.

Another good example comes from the Exsultet sung at the Easter vigil, when the earth is told to rejoice in the splendor of the eternal king. This moment is perhaps not eschatological in the strict sense, since Easter marks not the end of the world but a re-birth in Christ, but the situation is similar, since a great change in man's history has come about. The imagery, then, is also similar:

Gaudeat et tellus, tantis irradiata fulgoribus:
et æterni Regis splendore illustrata,
totius orbis se sentiat amisisse caliginem.

This imagery of nature somehow cooperating, or at least reflecting, the events of man's history is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon either. Here is an example from Virgil's first Georgic (ll. 466-471, translated by David Ferry):

When Caesar's light was quenched, the shining face
Of the sun, in pity for Rome, was covered with darkness,
And that impious generation was in fear
That there would thenceforth be eternal night.
And not only the sun but the earth and the sea gave signs,
And dogs and birds gave signs, of ill to come.

This kind of imagery has great emotional resonance, but I'm not sure exactly why. Any ideas?
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