1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Gn 1:1-5)
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Is 9:2)
...and the darkness he called Night. The primordial darkness that was the initial state of creation was given a name: night. Night is, then, a remnant of the primordial chaos, before God created order, the cosmos. Notice the very first element of order God created was light, the Day; and God saw the light was good. The darkness, the night, is part of that world before there was good, before there was life, before God swore a covenant with humankind. Humans throughout history, in all cultures, have been afraid of the dark. We cannot see our surroundings in the darkness of night, and so we fear it. But there is something deeper to our fear and it is not the fear of being off our guard; it is the fear of death - there is something about the darkness of night that conjures feelings of death, of supernatural death. The night represents our life without supernatural life. When we find ourselves in the dark and we imagine things, we do not imagine leopards or robbers - the things of this world that can harm us; we imagine ghosts and demons and ‘things that go bump in the night.’
And so Scripture utilizes the image of Night as our life without the covenant, and of Light and Day as our covenant life. Anyone who reads the bible sees this easily. A deeper dive into Scripture, though, reveals something interesting about this: the great events of salvation happened at night. They clearly image the coming of God - the source of salvation - into the darkness of our natural lives, bringing the light of His grace which puts an end to the primordial darkness once and for all.
The Old Testament
First among the OT narratives that speak of this theme is the beginning of Genesis, quoted above. It presents us with the paradigmatic text which explains the meaning of night/darkness, and images light/day as the first of God’s creative works.
Next we can see the role of night in the Abrahamic covenant:
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram. (Gn 15:12-17)
In this text, God swore a covenant with Abram; but it was night, as the sun had gone down.
Now let’s move ahead to the covenant with Moses. Two great events happened at night: the Passover and the Red Sea crossing. During the night of the Passover, death reigned over Egypt, but Israel was finally released from slavery.
5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; 6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. 7 Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them. 8 They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it… 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt… 28 Then the people of Israel went and did so; as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did. 29 At midnight the LORD smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. 30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where one was not dead. 31 And he summoned Moses and Aaron by night, and said, "Rise up, go forth from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the LORD, as you have said. (Ex 12:5-8, 12-13, 28-31)
Once freed, Israel began their pilgrimage to the Promised Land. They came to the Red Sea, where Pharoah’s army trapped them; it happened at night.
19 Then the angel of God who went before the host of Israel moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, 20 coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness; and the night passed without one coming near the other all night. 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. 24 And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians, 25 clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; and the Egyptians said, "Let us flee from before Israel; for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians." (Ex 14:19-25)
Israel crossed the Red Sea at night. They initially thought they would die, to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s army at the shore of the sea; instead they witnessed an amazing miracle and were again freed. The dawn came and the army was destroyed.
Next, let’s look at the covenant God swore with David.
4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan… 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; 15 but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.'" 17 In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (2 Sam 7:4, 12-17)
God swore His covenant with David through the prophet Nathan, and He did so at night. God promised an everlasting dynasty for David’s progeny. It immediately referred to David’s Son, Solomon; but it was ultimately fulfilled in David’s descendant, Jesus, whose throne is the only throne which stands forever.
The New Testament
The great events of salvation continued to happen at night in the New Covenant, beginning with the nativity of the Lord.
7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. (Lk 2:7-16)
It has been the ancient belief of the Church that Jesus was born at night. Scripture alludes to this in the above text where, although it is not expressly stated that Mary gave birth at night, it is inferred that the nighttime shepherd story was immediate on the birth of the Lord. Some may point to the phrase is born this day as evidence that He was born during the day, but the Greek word used here, semeron, generally means ‘just now,’ be it day or night.
To put the matter to rest, I will quote from the Divine Liturgy of Christmas midnight mass:
O God, who hast enlightened this most sacred Night by the brightness of him who is the true Light… (Collect)
The Liturgy is our primary source of Sacred Tradition, and so is on the same level as Sacred Scripture as the Word of God. We can believe it as surely as we believe the Bible. This ancient liturgical prayer states clearly that Jesus, the true Light, came into the world at night, sanctifying that night. Furthermore, the mere existence of a Eucharistic liturgy at night is itself reasonable proof that it was during the night that this sacred event occurred.
Next, we look at the events of the Passion. The first event was that first Eucharist, the Last Supper, which certainly happened at night as was the custom for Passover.
18 He said, "Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, `The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.'" 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover. 20 When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; 33 Peter declared to him, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." 34 Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." (Mt 26:18-20, 33-34)
The Last Supper took place in the evening (after sunset, per Jewish tradition). Then followed the agony in the garden of Gethsemene and the arrest of Jesus – all of which happened during that same night, before the cock crowed.
Jesus’ crucifixion did not happen at night. He hung on the cross from about noon until 3:00 PM. Although it was not night, it was dark.
45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, la'ma sabach-tha'ni?" that is, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?..." 50 And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. (Mt 27:45-46, 50)
What happened next, however, did happen at night. It was the culminating event in salvation history: the Resurrection.
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathe'a, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed. 61 Mary Mag'dalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre. 1 Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Mag'dalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. (Mt 27:57-28:6)
Jesus’ dead body was laid in the tomb after evening – the night was at hand. The next morning, before dawn, i.e., while it was still night, Mary Magdalene was informed that Jesus had already risen from the dead. That is, His resurrection occurred during the night.
The Apostles did not see Jesus that Easter morning; He came to them at night, instituting the great Sacrament of Mercy:
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20:19-23)
Forty days later, Jesus completed all that He came to complete. Through His works, salvation is complete and salvation history happened at night, to symbolize the light transforming the darkness. But there was still one more great event of salvation history yet to happen: the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This event was the fruit of Christ’s salvation, so of course it happened in the bright Light of Day, the night being eternally over.
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language… 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine." 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.” (Acts 2:1-6, 12-15)
It was about nine o’clock in the morning. The night was over.
1 Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; 4 they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. 5 And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev 22:1-5)