Learning to Welcome the Dark: Advent 1
Texts: Isaiah 45:2-8 (note this is different than the assigned lectionary); Psalm: 88:1-12; Mark 13:24-37
Darkness crowded around my bed like a thousand evil whispers. I knew the snakes were slithering beneath my mattress, just out of sight. And because it was dark, I would not be able to see them if I had to get up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water or use the bathroom. I was terrified of stepping onto the floor until morning light dissolved the writhing mass of hissing serpents. At age seven I already knew: The darkness hides dangerous things.
Are you afraid of the dark?
Author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells us that darkness actually has much to teach us. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, she reminds us that we need darkness as much as we need light. She critiques what she calls “full solar spirituality” in which darkness is demonized in religious teachings. She also critiques the church, wherein the implicit message is: “the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.” Taylor counters: what would it be like to trust the darkness, or, trust God in the darkness? How can we learn to embrace darkness and what it has to offer?
Advent is the ideal time to explore these questions. We are moving toward the darkest part of the year, when the daylight diminishes and darkness grows deeper. This is a good time to gain a different understanding and appreciation of darkness. As Isaiah reminds us, God forms light and creates darkness.
If God created darkness, it can’t be all bad, can it?
And yet we’ll do anything to chase darkness away. Many of us still sleep with a nightlight. Certainly it’s a matter of safety for some of us who are unsteady on our feet and would risk falling if we stumbled in the dark.
But just think about how much “light pollution” there is in the world. Sea turtles get stranded on beaches because the human-made light from electrified shore-lines confuses them into thinking their heading toward the sun rising over the sea. In urban areas, birds can be heard chirping throughout the night because the sky is so illuminated by artificial lights. A look at night images of earth across the globe reveals just how much light pollution we have created. The greenhouse gases emitted from our power plants to fuel this need for nighttime illumination adds more and more to climate disruption.
Have you noticed that Christmas lights appear on houses earlier and earlier every year?
We see them as early as the end of October! Certainly the commercialization of Christmas contributes to this push. But perhaps it indicates a deeper fear. Perhaps those lights are a way to chase from our lives the snakes under the bed, the monsters in the closet, the enemies lurking in the shadows.
And let’s admit, there are some who do use the darkness to hide their wrongdoing. Criminals wait for night to fall to shroud their crimes from sight. But here’s the thing – even though evil has tried to claim darkness as its own abode, as its own kingdom – the truth is this:
God is the ruler of night and darkness.
It is God who rules the darkness and claims it not as the location of wickedness, but as the realm over which God has hovered and moved from the beginning, out of which all creation arose and is still arising. God creates darkness and watches the seeds deep in the earth breaking forth their green shoots therein. God comes to Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and Mary in the darkness of their dreams and reveals the Divine self and purposes. Samuel’s call from God comes during the night.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that when the sun is darkened and the moon is new and even the light of the stars is no longer visible — God will send the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Notice, it doesn’t say anything about Jesus coming in a great beam of light. Jesus comes in the dark, shrouded by mystery. He comes like the master of the house – when? Not in the daytime. At some time during the night: in the evening, or at midnight, or just before dawn when the rooster crows.
“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’” (Mark 13:35 – 37)
The Greek word is: gregoreo, which means “watch, pay attention.”
The darkness is calling for our attention. Perhaps we should not attempt to banish it with our colored lights.
I invite you during this Advent season to spend some time with darkness, even if it scares you a little. I’m not saying you have to plunge in the deep end and risk your safety. Try dipping toe in the shallow end at first. When the sun goes down, don’t immediately turn on the lights. Don’t turn on the t.v. Put away your glowing cell phone. Sit in the darkness for a while. Try it just for 10 minutes at first. Maybe 30 minutes if you’re feeling brave.
Listen to what darkness is saying to you.
If fear comes, listen to it. If sadness comes, attend to it. If boredom comes, let your mind wander and whisper. If you awaken in the middle of the night with insomnia, let the darkness lead you to prayer, to communion with God, to the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary in the night. Let the darkness lead you to the mystery of Jesus who comes to us in the evening, at midnight, at the darkest moment before dawn.
The psalmist asks of God: Are your wonders known in the darkness?
And we can answer, as a matter of fact, yes. Yes, God’s wonders are known in the darkness.
And God is wonderful in the darkness. Amen.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).