Adapted from the Anxious Bench archives:
My local Presbyterian church has a “Longest Night” service shortly before Christmas, recognizing that even as we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness, many of us experience considerable darkness in our lives. Perhaps we sense such darkness as we contemplate yet another year marred by terrorism and war, but most us grieve deaths, setbacks, and struggles that concern only ourselves and a small circle of friends and family. What consolation can the church offer those individuals for whom darkness seems to overcome the light?
A few years ago, I came across a letter Jonathan Edwards wrote to an aristocrat named Mary Pepperell, who was grieving the loss of her son.
It’s probably familiar to the many fans of Jonathan Edwards out there, but it was new to my memory. The entire letter is published in Yale’s online Works of Jonathan Edwards.
After some preliminaries, Edwards suggests that the best consolation he can offer is to recommend contemplation upon “the Lord Jesus Christ–with regard especially to two things, viz. his amiableness and love, or his infinite worthiness, and that we should love him and take him for our only portion, rest, hope and joy; the other, his great and unparalleled love to us.”
Edwards then proceeds to engage in that contemplation: Let us think, dear Madam, a little of the loveliness of our blessed Redeemer and his worthiness, that our whole soul should be swallowed up with love to him and delight in him, and that we should salve our hearts in him, rest in him, have sweet complacence and satisfaction of soul in his excellency and beauty whatever else we are deprived of. The Scripture assures us abundantly of his proper divinity, so that we consider him that came into the world in our nature and died for us, as truly possessed of all the fullness of that infinite glory of the Godhead, his infinite greatness and majesty, his infinite wisdom, his infinitely perfect holiness and purity, righteousness and goodness.
Edwards’s twin depiction of Christ’s majesty and meekness particularly resonates with me: When we view his greatness and majesty and other attributes, we are kept free from fear and flight by the view of his gentleness and humility. And when we view his marvelous love and abasement and are encouraged and comforted with that, we are kept from an indecent familiarity by the view of his infinite majesty. And by all together we are filled with most reverential love, humble boldness and familiarity, delightful adoration, and sweet surprise.
I like Edwards’s caution against “indecent familiarity,” though note below that later in the letter that caution does not preclude understanding Christ as a “friend.” Indeed, Christ’s “love has brought him into such a relation to us as our friend, our elder brother, our Lord, our head and spiritual husband, our Redeemer, and hath brought us into so strict an union with him that our souls are his beloved bride.
The former Northampton minister and now Stockbridge missionary concludes by explaining how Christ’s death and resurrection provide comfort in the midst of painful bereavement:
Now, Madam, let us consider what suitable provision God has made for our consolation under all our afflictions in giving us a Redeemer of such glory and such love, especially when it is considered what were the ends of that great manifestation of his beauty and love in his death. He suffered that we might be delivered. His soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death, to take away the sting of sorrow and that we might have everlasting consolation. He was oppressed and afflicted that we might be supported. He was overwhelmed in the darkness of death and of hell, that we might have the light of life. He was cast into the furnace of God’s wrath, that we might swim in the rivers of pleasure. His heart was overwhelmed in a flood of sorrow and anguish, that our hearts might be filled and overwhelmed with a flood of eternal joy.
And now let it be considered what circumstances our Redeemer now is in. He was dead but is alive, and he lives forevermore. Death may deprive of dear friends, but it can’t deprive us of this, our best friend.
And we have this friend, this mighty Redeemer, to go to under all affliction, who is not one that can’t be touched with the feeling of our afflictions, he having suffered far greater sorrows than we ever have done. And if we are vitally united to him, the union can never be broken; it will remain when we die and when heaven and earth are dissolved. Therefore, in this we may be confident, we need not fear though the earth be removed. In him we may triumph with everlasting joy; even when storms and tempests arise we may have resort to him who is an hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest. When we are thirsty, we may come to him who is as rivers of waters in a dry place. When we are weary, we may go to him who is as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Having found him who is as the apple tree among the trees of the wood, we may sit under his shadow with great delight and his fruit may be sweet to our taste. Christ told his disciples that in the world [they] should have trouble, but says he, “In me ye shall have peace.” If we are united to him, our souls will be like a tree planted by a river that never dieth. He will be their light in darkness and their morning star that is a bright harbinger of day. And in a little [while], he will arise on our souls as the sun in full glory. And our sun shall no more go down, and there shall be no interposing cloud, no veil on his face or on our hearts, but the Lord shall be our everlasting light and our Redeemer, our glory.
The letter is more beautiful than any commentary I could offer on it. Perhaps any theological reflection might seem like cold comfort to the recently bereaved. Our simple presence — our attempt to embody Christ’s love — with those who languish in darkness is perhaps the most appropriate response. Yet as Christians we follow a Savior who himself was a man of sorrows. Our savior knows our suffering. He experienced it.
As we remember the star that shone over Bethlehem, we pray that those who suffer in darkness
might glimpse their bright morning star.