11 December 2012

Awake & Astounded: II. Dispelling the Shadows - An Advent Series

Isaiah 45:1-8 & Luke 1: 67-79

Sunday of Advent/ 9th December 2012

Light and darkness.  Darkness and light.  Advent and Christmas, placed by the early church at a time when daylight is short and nights are long, at least for those north of the equator. In the midst of dark winter, it’s a season of lights – candlelight and firelight, lights in trees and in windows.  Light mixed with darkness, darkness mixed with light means that it’s also a season of shadows; not one or the other, but each shaping the other.

            The birth of Jesus has traditionally been understood as the giving of light.  Although he was probably born in March or April, the early church situated his birth in the darkest time of the year – yes, to compete with the Roman pagan solstice festival, but also to symbolize the truth that his birth brings life to the dark places.  As Zechariah foresaw, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 79).  In the Gospel of John Jesus refers to himself as the “light of the world” (John 8:12).  This image of Jesus was beautifully captured by Ambrose (c.330-397), the bishop of Milan, writing in the fourth century, in the hymn text (which we studied this morning in adult education), “O splendor of God’s glory bright, from light eternal bringing light, Thou Light of light, light’s living Spring, True Day, all days illumining.”[1]  Ambrose was lifting up the early theological claim that Jesus is an extension of God’s glory.  That the light of God is shining through him, that in his light we see light; in Jesus we catch a glimpse of God’s light. God’s light is like a spring of light, the source of all light.  All light emanates from him; all light participates in him.  The light of every day is illuminated by Christ

            There’s a problem, though, with all this emphasis upon light in the Christian experience.  There’s something about it that doesn’t quite ring true.  This might sound odd coming from a preacher in a pulpit.  It doesn’t ring true because we don’t at present live in a world of light.  I’m not saying it’s all darkness, but it certainly isn’t all light.  It’s a little bit of both, sometimes at the same time:  neither light nor dark, but both-and. 

            And yet, in the Christian tradition we tend to privilege light over darkness; we view light as good, positive, happy, darkness is bad, negative, sad and therefore avoided.  Hence we prefer the light; we run from the dark, we fear the dark and darkness.  There are all kinds of problems with this prevailing understanding.  For a start, this attitude has done little to heal the church’s long, conflicted struggle with racism. 

            We prefer to think about happy things, good things, and privilege “light.”  Who doesn’t? 

            But here’s the rub:  when we avoid the difficult, the demanding, the challenging things about the world and ourselves they only grow in intensity and continue to shape us.  There is at work within the Christian tradition a dangerous dualism of light vs. dark, as if we are engaged in a cosmic battle, with darkness as the enemy. 

            There are plenty of scripture passages that seem to support this view. 1 John 1:5 says, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Or, think of Revelation 21:23, where the New Jerusalem is bathed in the light of Christ and there will be no night.  It’s there in scripture. 

            But by privileging the light, celebrating the light, embracing only the light, avoiding the darkness, hiding from the darkness, fighting and even hating the darkness actually has a way of turning us into the very thing we avoid.  Emphasizing the light makes it more difficult for us to see the size and shape and even weight of the dark things in the world and in our hearts.  We can’t live in the dark, of course, we need light to live.  But the greater the light, the darker is the shadow cast by its light.[2]  If we focus only on the light, then the intensity of the dark grows deeper within us and within the world. Darkness and shadows are still there, still shaping us when we privilege the light.

            But, even more significantly, if we focus only on the light, rejecting the dark places, we just might miss something of God at work there, something of God that is gestating there in the darkness – not unlike Jesus as light spent nine months growing in the darkness of Mary’s womb, not unlike how all of us came to be in the dark.

            There are other passages of scripture in which God celebrates both day and night, for God is the creator of both (Genesis 1:4-5).  God hides in the darkness.  Listen to this text from Exodus:  “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20:21).  And in Isaiah 45 we have this remarkable text and these shocking words, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God.  I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness, ….”  The darkness is a manifestation of God’s creative design.  And, God has a way of showing up and “shining” especially in those dark places and people – like Cyrus! 

            Isaiah 45 is remarkable because it identifies the Persian King Cyrus as Yahweh’s anointed.  Why? Because when the Persian army arrived from the east and defeated the Babylonians, it meant that the Israelites would be released from captivity and allowed to return home from exile.  What’s remarkable about this text is that the Hebrew word for “anointed” here means “savior,”  “deliverer,” “messiah,” which translated into Greek reads Christos, Christ.  Christ means “anointed one.”  Cyrus is God’s anointed, his messiah, his “Christ,” chosen to be an instrument of God’s grace.  In other words, God has a way of showing up in unlikely places and unlikely people – such as the pagan, Gentile King Cyrus – and working through them in order to bring about salvation, healing.  “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. …I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me” (Is. 45:3).

            The contemporary poet Mary Oliver, a person of faith, had a dream and in her sleep she dreamed this poem:     
            Someone I loved once gave me
            a box full of darkness.     

            It took me years to understand
            that this, too, was a gift.[3]

            Darkness as gift.  This too is the message of Advent.  Sitting with darkness, embracing the darkness, waiting for the dawn.  It’s probably why we resist this season, preferring to go straight for the light, for the celebration of Christmas.  But, as we know, we can’t rush the dawn; it comes in its own time. Have you ever waited anxiously and impatiently for the sun to come up?  Perhaps you were having a bad night and couldn’t sleep or you were sick in the night and waited for the dawn. Perhaps you were sitting up all night with your child who was sick, waiting for the sun to rise, waiting for the time when you could call your pediatrician’s office.  Perhaps you went hiking at dusk and lost your way, forcing you to spend the night outdoors in unfamiliar territory and total darkness.  Perhaps your power went out during one of our recent storms and you craved daylight to find out how much damage had been done in your neighborhood by the wind and rain and falling trees. 

            Sometimes in anticipating sunrise we miss what could be called the “darkness beneath the dawn.” That’s how Jim Donnelly describes it.  A member at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church (Severna Park, MD), Jim recently shared with me a poem he wrote trying to capture a moment.  It’s the moment, he writes,
            Just beneath the bright rays of the morning sun,
            as they breach the glow that is the dawn which
            heralds our new day, lies a band of soulful darkness,
            obscured from our view by the brilliance
            of those first golden spears of light
            that crest the ridge. 
He’s talking about that moment, just before dawn, as the sun’s brilliance rises in the east, there is a band of “soulful darkness” just below the light.  Our eyes might be so focused on the coming light that we miss the darkness just under it, and so we miss its beauty, we miss the moment of grace “in that darkness beneath the dawn.”

            There’s something of that “soulful darkness” missing in our age that prefers the light. The twelfth century Roman Catholic mystic (and later heretic), Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1327) wrote, “the ground of the soul is dark.”[4]  It’s not fully known.  It’s mysterious.  Centuries before Eckhart the early church father Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395) – who was not a heretic – said, “it is only after one has quenched the brilliant light of the reasoning mind that one may enter most immediately into the presence and knowledge of God: ‘Moses’ vision of God began with light, afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.”[5]

            I witnessed something of this holy darkness when I was in Switzerland last winter, visiting the International School of Analytical Psychology, one of the two centers in Zurich dedicated to the work of Carl Jung (1875-1961).[6] About an hour outside of Zurich, in the old town of Einsiedeln, there’s an enormous Benedictine abbey, founded in 948, with a chapel and shrine to the Black Madonna.  It contains a carving of Jesus’ mother, Mary, in black.  

The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln
Black Madonnas emerged in the twelfth century in France, Sicily, Spain, Poland, The Czech Republic, and Russia, later in Turkey and Africa.  I was there on a Sunday afternoon for the 4 p.m. Vespers Mass in which priests and choir processed through the church singing – with the crowds following behind them – leading to the shrine of the Black Madonna and then they sang to her.  I was more of an observer on the fringe of it all, watching, than participant, but I was struck by this form of faith and devotion.    One theologian suggests that the “Black Madonna calls us to the darkness and to the depth.  Darkness is something we need to get used to again – the ‘Enlightenment’ has deceived us into being afraid of the dark and distant from it….Thus, to avoid the darkness is to live superficially, cut off from one’s ground, one’s depth.  The Black Madonna invites us into the dark and therefore into our depths.  This is where Divinity lies.  It is where true self lies.  It is where illusions are broken and the truth lives.”[7]

Perhaps, for just a while longer, we can sit with the dark, embrace the darkness, see what it has to teach us.  Perhaps, for just a while longer we can wait before light dispels the shadows, linger there.  For the light of Christ appears in the darkness.  The light shines in the darkness.  It’s in the darkness the light appears.  While the darkness cannot overcome it, the darkness remains (John1: 5). Sometimes the presence of the light intensifies the darkness; sometimes the darkness allows us to really welcome the light.

            The Christian poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) knew this truth when he wrote in Four Quartets:
            O dark dark dark…
            I said to my soul, be still,
            and let the dark come upon you…
            I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope
            For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
            wait without love,
            For love would be love of the wrong thing;…
            Wait without thought,
            for you are not ready for thought:
            So darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.[8]

            In time “the dawn from on high” will break upon us – in the night, as the shepherds knew, in the night – as it always does. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) tells the story of a three-year-old boy whom he heard calling out from a dark room in the night. "Auntie," he cried, "talk to me! I'm frightened because it is so dark." His aunt answered him from another room: "What good would that do? You can't see me." "That doesn't matter," replied the child. "When you talk, it gets light."[ix]

            Jesus is God’s Word to us in the dark.  When God speaks to us, even though it’s dark – maybe especially when it’s dark – it gets light. Thanks be to God.

[1] Ambrose of Milan, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” c.374.
[2] I am indebted here to the work of C. G. Jung (1875-1961) who has written extensively on the tension of light and darkness within the Christian experience. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Alchemical Studies, CW, Vol. 13, 265.
[3] Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow,” Thirst (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006), 52.
[4] Cited in Fox, 233.
[5] Jean Daniélou and Herbert Musurillo, From Glory to Glory:  Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (Crestwood, 1979), cited in Kathleen Martin, ed, The Book of Symbols:  Reflected on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archeytpal Symbolism (Taschen), 102.
[6] Specifically, the International School of Analytical Psychology Zurich.
[7] Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men:  Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine (Novato, CA:  New World Library, 2010), 233.
[8] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets.
[ix] Cited in David Benner, Soulful Spirituality:  Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Brazos Press, 2011), 142

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