25 March 2016

Confronting the Dark

A Meditation for the Triduum:
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday

Like most children, I was often afraid of the dark.  My guess is that most of us remember being afraid of the dark as a children too.  To calm my anxiety my mother, after she tucked me in for the night, made sure that the door to my room was not closed completely.  There was a narrow space, a crack, which allowed a narrow, sliver of light to come in from the hallway—I can see it right now—assuring me that I’m would not be cut off from the light, that I would not be completely alone.  That assurance allowed me to drift off to sleep.

Sometimes it’s all that’s needed to help us face the darkness.  Just a little light goes a long way.  Maybe you had a nightlight in your bedroom to ward off the dark—maybe you still do.  Yes, it’s amazing what even a little light can do.  Strike a match in a completely dark room.  It’s remarkable how much light a tiny flame can generate.

Light and darkness.  We need both.  One complete day consists of both.  God blesses both the night and the day in Genesis (1:5).  Both are good.  But we tend to prefer one to the other and if we have to choose one it will probably be light, which is only natural.  We need light to live. We need light in order to see where we’re going.  We need light to see one another. 

Light is associated with goodness, purity, wisdom, knowledge, truth, and divinity.  We tend to associate darkness as the opposite of goodness and purity and wisdom, knowledge, truth, and divinity.  Within the Christian tradition we, generally, privilege light over darkness.  Light=good; darkness=bad.  When we divide up reality this way, it’s easy for us to become dangerously dualistic and then turn everything into a cosmic struggle: light vs. darkness, good vs. evil, and so forth.

On Maundy Thursday, after we share Communion, we walk into the sanctuary and hear the story of Christ’s suffering on the cross and about his death.  We call that portion of the service Tenebrae, from the Latin meaning “darkness” or “shadows.”  The service ends in darkness, not complete darkness, but pretty close to it.  The story, itself, though, ends in total darkness when the stone rolls tight over the entrance to Jesus’ tomb.  That is dark.

It takes some courage to remember these days.  A majority of Christians go from the triumphalism of Palm Sunday straight to the joy of Easter morning and never walk through Holy Week, never attend to the events of Maundy Thursday or Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Some skip Palm Sunday altogether and just show up on Easter, which is okay, of course.  (I’m just grateful whoever shows up for worship on Easter.)  Still, I wonder why people avoid Holy Week observances.  I’m sure there are studies on this phenomenon, but I haven’t seen them.  There are very practical reasons, I guess, evening commitments during the week and the like.  For some, I know, it’s just too painful to focus on suffering and death.  It’s too close to home; it’s easier to stay home.  Perhaps some prefer to focus on uplifting thoughts, for all of this talk about betrayal and trials and crosses and tombs, it’s just too depressing.  Let’s be positive. Isn’t there enough pain and senseless suffering and death in the world, why should we focus on this aspect of Holy Week?  That’s a good question in light of the events in Brussels this week.

It seems to me, though, that when we a-void the void, avoid the darker aspects of this week, when we run from the shadows, when we fail to confront the darkness in the story—in us and in the world—then we overlook a crucial dimension of this good news that we will celebrate this coming Lord’s Day and every Lord’s Day.[1]  If Christ was God’s Son on the cross, and the same Christ that was raised three days later, then that means Christ was God’s Son on Saturday, too, in the darkness of the tomb.[2]  The Resurrected One is the Lord who confronted the darkness, both literally and symbolically, making even the place of darkness and death the very place that yields new life, new light—a light, as John’s Gospel tells us, that “shines in the darkness,” which darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5).  This means that even the darkness cannot separate us from God’s love.  Perhaps, then, as Christ’s people, we shouldn’t be afraid of the dark places in the world or in ourselves, because there are many people right now who do not know or cannot believe or trust or even imagine that the darkness is anything other than dark, who cannot imagine that the darkness can become a luminous place that reveals the presence, not the absence, of the Holy One.  That’s a cause for joy. 

Contemporary hymn-writer Brian Wren is even bold enough to connect the dark with joy.  The fourth verse of his hymn, “Joyful Is the Dark,” the title alone is provocative, goes likes this: 

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb, 
waiting for the wonder of the morning; 
never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom: 
darkness was the cradle of the dawning.[3]

Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) was an imperfect servant of the Lord, like all of us.  Perfection is not required of a saint.  She was not a servant to perfection, but to a deeper truth.  “If ever I become a saint,” she said, “I will surely be one of ‘darkness’—I will continually be absent from heaven, to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”[4]  We are called to enter the darkness for the sake of those who are lost there.  

The American poet Wendell Berry, a Christian of deep conviction, who’s also a farmer, wrote,

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.  
To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight, 
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, 
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”[5]

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, let us wander through the shadows of the story and not be afraid.  Let us sit and wait—in the dark—wait for the dawning of something new to break forth from the tomb.  May it be so.



[1] On the necessity of facing the void at the heart of existence, see James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Helmers & Howard, 1989).
[2] See Alan E. Lewis, Between the Cross & Resurrection: ATheology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
[3] Glory to God:  The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #230. 
[4] Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa: Come to My Light (New York: Rider, 2008).
[5] Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark,” Farming: A Handbook (Counterpoint, 2011).

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