Note: An edited version of this reflection appears in the January 2020 issue of the UNITY Lutheran Church newsletter.
As I write this article, I’m sitting in my apartment, in near-total darkness, except for the glow of the lights on my Christmas tree and two other strands of lights I have hanging around my front window and my kitchen (and, of course, my computer screen). Christmas lights might be one of the things I love most about this time of year, and I’m always sad to see them go – often keeping my tree up for a large part of January. I love the way each bulb is made even brighter by the dark that envelops it. To a point, you can’t even see the bulb or the wire anymore – only the light.
Throughout this past Advent season, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of light and darkness. Traditionally, Advent is the season where we look forward to the dawn, to the coming of the light that dispels the darkness. Even beyond Advent and Christmas, our liturgical language and traditions are filled with images of light and dark – and, often, we think of darkness as “bad” and light “good.”
But what if we could imagine darkness as a good thing? What if we could dwell in the darkness and learn to walk more intentionally in the dark? After all, some of our most significant Bible stories happen in the darkness: God creates the world from a murky abyss. Jacob wrestles with God through the night. God leads the Israelites out of slavery and into the wilderness under the cover of night. An angel visits Joseph in a dream as he sleeps to tell him of Mary’s pregnancy. It seems like the Bible is trying to tell us something about darkness: In darkness comes creation, liberation, promise. This is the darkness of the womb, not the tomb…darkness that is growing new life and giving birth to great hope.
There’s another reason I find myself dwelling in the darkness, too. In a predominantly white congregation of a predominantly white denomination (indeed, according to a 2015 Pew Research study, the whitest denomination), I am acutely aware of the way our language of “light = good” and “dark = bad” can contribute to systems of racism that are still very much at work in our society and in our churches. Lutheran pastor Lenny Duncan, an out queer black man, writes in his book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.: “If we stick to the idea that Advent is a time of darkness, midnight, blackness when we await the dawn, light, and whiteness, we are conflating whiteness with holiness” (68).
But our Bible teaches us that darkness is holy, too, and indeed blackness is holy. And beautiful, amazing things happen in the dark and pitch black.
I recently came across an interactive website exploring the Deep Sea. As you scroll down the page, you can take a virtual dive into the deep. At around 200 meters below sea level, you enter the Twilight Zone…130 meters later, you’ve reached the deepest any human has ever scuba dived. At 1000 meters, you enter the Midnight Zone – total darkness. No sunlight reaches the Midnight Zone. But the ocean keeps going. At 4000 meters, in the Abyssal Zone, temperatures near the freezing point. Living conditions are extremely harsh, but still species appear. By 8848 meters, you have dived as deep as Mt. Everest is high. Still, there is a long ways to go.
On January 23, 1960, two explorers attempted to reach the Challenger Deep – the deepest point of the ocean, and so deep that the intense pressure cracked one of the window panes of their vessel in the process. But at nearly 11,000 meters deep, still they could see life outside of the windows. Even in the deepest, darkest, most inhospitable environments, still there is life. Life can indeed survive unimaginable and unimaginably dark environments.
We know darkness – the darkness of despair, diagnosis, or death. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As my friend and colleague recently preached, “God’s best creative work happens in darkness. In the mystery and darkness of Mary’s womb God knit together with holy DNA a being that broke all of the rules, God’s own self enfleshed, somehow totally human and totally divine. And it was the darkness of the tomb before first light where Jesus rose on Easter morning, conquering sin and death. There is something about darkness. It’s powerful.”
As our Bible stories in darkness teach us, sometimes God’s might and presence are felt just as strongly, if not more so, in darkness as in the light. In the touch of a loved one or the call of a friend, even in the dark places, there is God. Trust the darkness, and trust even more the One who hovers within and above it and is with us through it all.
Thanks be to God,