Light in the Darkness
by Tim Mooney
The metaphor of “Light” is so important to Christianity. The season of Advent, celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World. While still wrapped in winter’s cold and darkness, advent was the promise of spring, of life returning, the light of God’s love experienced in the person of Jesus, and Mary’s receptivity to this birthing. As the Gospel of John puts it, the light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it.
But one of the dominant ways Christianity interprets the human situation, centers on the story of Adam and Eve, summed up as “The Fall.” A dark and evil thing happened in the garden, from which all creation has suffered, resulting in the doctrines of Original Sin and Human Depravity. Thus the importance of the Light entering the world in Jesus. But Original Sin is not the only, nor a necessary, interpretation of Genesis. What if we heard these stories in a positive way? How do these stories communicate truth about the human condition? Is it only a tragedy, or do the stories convey the fullness and complexity of life? How might we see these stories and our lives differently if we saw them pointing to Original Blessing rather than Original Sin?
Meister Eckhart, a 15th Century German mystic, asked, “What good is it if Jesus was born to Mary 1400 years ago, but is not born in you and me now in our time and culture?” Eckhart suggests these stories are for us, about us, inviting us into living different questions. How do you and I yield to God’s presence as Mary did? How is God being birthed in you and me? In what way are you and I the child about to be born? And let’s take notice of the roll darkness plays in these births. A baby is grown, nurtured, prepared for life, in the dark. So, too, God often works in the dark, and we must wait for the fullness of time.
A friend, going through a difficult time, came up with an image for it – she felt completely lost in a dark and thick fog. She explored the image in prayer, inviting God to show up any way God wanted. The image changed. The dark, cold fog, changed into a chrysalis. Yes, she was enclosed in darkness, not able to move, but she now waited for the signs of the birth and newness that would emerge. What had been confusing and fearful, became a place of trust, anticipation, and she gained a new found sense of humor toward what she didn’t know and couldn’t control.
What I’m suggesting is a change of perspective, attitude, about “light in the darkness.” Typically, “light in the darkness” suggests that it is totally dark and then light is added or brought to the darkness to dispel it. But the image that works better for me is that of going out into a dark night and sitting still long enough to notice the light that is already in the darkness. Darkness has its own light. As the Psalmist writes, “darkness is as light,” to God. We’re invited to notice, pay attention to, trust, protect, our experiences of darkness, confusion.
I am struck by the image in the Gospel of Luke, known as the Annunciation. The angel appears to Mary and says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” My painting, on the front of your bulletin, tries to capture this moment. God’s power “overshadows” Mary. It’s not an image of light. It’s an image of being cast in darkness. Every birth begins in the dark. Could we see being in the dark, in the shadow, in the absence of light, in a different way? What “light” is already there in the darkness, what kind of light does the darkness want to communicate?
What is dark in your life? Where does darkness show up in your life? Take a moment to sit with it. We typically think of “darkness” as long-standing dilemmas, personal struggles, confusion and unknowns. Our typical response and attitude toward what we call “dark” is resistance, fear, anxiety, depression. But what if we let darkness have another meaning. The darkness of the womb, the darkness of the chrysalis, the darkness of winter where life goes internal, into the dark, and loses all signs of external life, in order to regenerate new life? How do things shift? I am struck by another saying of Jesus. “Go into your closet and pray in secret.” Go into the dark, go where you can’t see, where there is confusion, and wait, watch, listen, and prayerfully discern.
The darkness is not to be run from, nor do we need an outside light to dispel the darkness, though emotionally that’s what we’d probably like.
Christianity celebrates the light coming into the world, but we have no rituals to welcome the end of the searing light of summer, to welcome the dark, to embrace what happens to us in the dark. This is a vital season, metaphor, to recover. Please don’t get me wrong! I am grateful for the light, we come to see by the light, but we tend to keep seeing by the same light. Our being “enlightened,” if you will, can become a form of blindness. We hold dearly to what we have seen, but in doing so, we tend to be less open to seeing more. And over time, what we have seen doesn’t shine as much light as it used to, it doesn’t provide enough vision to navigate life and its circumstances. Eventually, we find ourselves echoing these words found in Dante’s Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” The darkness is not to be run from, nor do we need an outside light to dispel the darkness, though emotionally that’s what we’d probably like. But our souls crave something deeper, a way of seeing what this darkness has to offer. Go into the dark. This is not a morbid request, nor a permission to subject yourself to self-denigration, but to remain long enough in the unknown, the confusion, the fear, to see what’s really there.
You, darkness, of whom I am born —
I love you more than the flame,
that limits the world to the circle it illumines,
and excludes all the rest.
But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations – just as they are.
It lets me imagine a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
Isaiah 9:2 reads, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” There is a way to read this that suggests that it is because they have walked in darkness that they are able to see the light that is there.
Parker Palmer, educator and author, went through a season of clinical depression. He tried various meds, therapists, changed his diet. Nothing worked. His world kept getting smaller, his depression deeper. He started to see a new therapist, who suggested to him, “Parker, might your depression be a hand pressing you down to solid ground from which you can truly stand upon and build from?” The image struck a chord; there was truth there. He began to see that his life was a house of cards, assembled to please others: parents, the academy, to receive external accolades. The hand pressing him down became for him the hand of Spirit pressing him down to himself, to his God-given soul, to whom God had gifted him to be. The depression became a gift, and the healing began.
I don’t want to suggest that every horrible, dark, depressed experience is of God. But I believe it is worth wondering if the dark, cold, unfriendly fog, might be a chrysalis; if the agonizing depression might be an invitation to build anew. The stories of scripture suggest that the dark, the wilderness, is the chrysalis of God’s transforming work in us, the womb of our birthing. If dark is as light to God, we might find it true for ourselves. Amen.