Alfred Burt, an American jazz musician, wrote an annual Christmas carol every year, to send out to friends and family, in a Christmas Card greeting.  A few of his carols have become well known including one written not long before his death at the age of 34 in 1954. It goes like this:

Caroling, caroling, now we go, Christmas bells are ringing.
Caroling, caroling, through the snow, Christmas bells are ringing,
Joyous voices sweet and clear, 
Sing the sad of heart to cheer.
Ding, dong, ding, dong! Christmas bells are ringing.”

One of his more haunting and poignant tunes, with words written by Wihla Huston revealed a racial inclusiveness in 1951, that was unusual for that day, three years prior to the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision determining that separate was inherently unequal.

Some Children See Him lily white, The baby Jesus born this night,  With tresses soft & fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown, The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown, With dark and heavy hair.
Some children see Him almond-eyed, This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see him almond-eyed..With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they, Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they, And, ah! they love Him, too!
The children in each different place Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King. ‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

This song tells us that God created a colorful, beautiful, diverse humanity, reminding us that we each see Jesus through our own lens. This Advent, we are looking at the theme of what we can learn through by Walking in the Dark, with only the luminous light of the stars or the moon to light our way instead of full solar spirituality. Today, I invite us to look at skin color, and the spiritual significance of how people can experience God through a darker lens. Rainer Maria Rilke – one of 20th century’s greatest poets wrote a poignant poem about the God of darkness.

No matter how deeply I go down into myself, my God is dark,
and like a webbing made of a hundred roots that drink in silence.

Some of you may be familiar with the publication Guideposts.  As a teenager & young adult, I devoured the articles each month and became familiar with a writer by the name of Sue Monk Kidd, the wife of a Southern Baptist Preacher. In the 1990’s she found herself in the midst of a feminist awakening. That spiritual journey led her to join the Episcopal Church. In 1996, she wrote her spiritual autobiography, “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter”, attempting to find a feminine face of God, and denouncing the patriarchy of the Southern Baptist Church. I read this book soon after it was published and this is when I learned about the “Black Madonna”.  In 2002, Kidd’s book, “The Secret Life of Bees” became a bestseller and made into a movie, departing from Southern Baptist conservatism, featuring a 14-year-old heroine, Lily, who finds solace & spirituality in a black woman’s face & in the theology of the Black Madonna.

There is a curious similarity between “The Shack”, written about 10 years ago. Both Sue Monk Kidd & William Young used a Black Madonna figure to represent “God”. Both talk about the Ground of All Being from the theology of Paul Tillich that recognizes the God in all things. Episcopal priest, Matthew Fox wrote:

The Black Madonna is returning. She is calling us to something new and very ancient as well….The Black Madonna invites us into the dark and therefore into our depths. This is what the mystics call the “inside” of things, the essence of things. This is where Divinity lies. She is the divine presence inside of creation.

Going back to prehistoric times, black was a symbol for the earth & the Great Mother, the source of heaven & earth. The darker earth is, the more fertile. Black also became the color of death & destruction. So the Great Dark Mother became known as “the Gate of Life” which opens both ways, to life on earth and to death. Mary is sometimes called the “Gate of Heaven”. She, too, is a door that opens to the worlds below and above, because divine life and salvation in the form of Jesus Christ came to our world through her womb.

Artemis of Ephesus was one of the most powerful goddesses of antiquity. She was a classic black Universal Mother and was older, more powerful, and more primal than her later Greek forms and her Roman equivalent Diana. Her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the largest building in the world to have been constructed entirely of marble.  Is it a coincidence that it was at the Council of Ephesus in 431 which proclaimed Mary as the Theoltokos, as the ”Mother of God”?  Kind along the theme of, “My God is bigger than your god or my virgin is more special than your virgin.”

I read the book of the Secret Life of Bees & watched the movie, then totally forgot about the Black Madonna until Angie & I were on a pilgrimage in France & entered into the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy. When we climbed the steep hill, then the many steps leading up to the cathedral, we entered through a secret trap door, climbing a million MORE steps. We arrived in the middle of this great cathedral facing the altar that curiously did not have a crucifix of Jesus hanging above it. In the place where we usually would see a crucifix was a figure of The “Black Madonna.  I was mesmerized.  She wore such a bright, colorful yellow dress emitting joy, while her face held a serious gaze.  In one of the side chapels, another Black Madonna figure wore a bright orange dress. Apparently the Black Madonna comes complete with her own fashion wardrobe featuring colorful dresses for different liturgical events – kind of like my paper doll collection when I was a kid. Both Black Madonna figures included a depiction of Jesus as a toddler, not as an infant as I would expect.

There are hundreds of these images of dark-skinned Black Madonnas in Europe, and they are some of the most ancient images we have of Mary. Many of them are in great Gothic cathedrals, like Chartres, France, often in the crypts. They were enshrined at places that were sacred even before Christianity, pagan holy sites and natural “power spots” of exchange between heaven and earth. There are a lot of speculations about why they are black. Some have said it’s about patina from candle smoke, but some scholars believe they are black because they have connections to pre-Christian goddesses, many of whom are pictured black – creating a blending of the Christian Mary & pagan earth goddesses.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy was built next to a volcanic rock overlooking the city. It has been an important religious center since pre-Christian times. Since the Middle Ages, Le Puy Cathedral has been the main starting point in France for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela which began in the 10th century. We counted ourselves among the lucky ones, when the priest bestowed upon our group a special blessing for walking even though it wasn’t at the regular 7am time of blessing as Pilgrims gather each day before setting out to walk the Camino de Santiago.

The rock on which the cathedral stands, was originally a Celtic and then a Roman pagan site. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, in the 4th century, the temple was destroyed. Only the dolmen – a pagan prehistoric tomb was left standing. According to a legend dating back to the 8th century, a woman suffering from a fever in 1st-century Le Puy was inspired by a vision to visit the rock on which the cathedral now stands. She fell into a feverish sleep on the dolmen, what is now called the “Fever Stone”. When she awoke, her fever had gone and she saw the Virgin Mary seated next to her. “The Queen of Heaven has chosen this place as her domain, to receive and answer prayers here.” The Bishop of Le Puy wished to obey the Virgin’s request, but he didn’t have the resources. So he made do by planting a hedge over the site until funding could be secured. The next day, the hedge bloomed with flowers.

The bishop went to Rome to ask the Pope’s permission to build a church around the Druidic dolmen and to move his bishop’s seat onto the pagan holy hill, reclaiming it for Christianity. Permission was granted and the building started in 415 AD. Incorporating some of its masonry & the pagan dolmen stone — at a time when toleration of paganism meant immediate excommunication.  The dolmen stone/”Fever Stone” is still there – to the side of the altar – Angie & I both lay upon it to take in its potential healing properties.

The high altar includes the Black Madonna placed there around 1000. This was venerated by pilgrims for eight centuries until its violent destruction by Revolutionaries in 1794, when the wooden image was publicly burned on a pyre. A replica is there today, and She is carried in procession on feast days of Mary.  11th-century Pope Leo IX, declared: “Le Puy is the most important shrine to Mary in France.”

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark – Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words – p. 175…

In Christian mysticism, darkness stands for divine mysteries that are hidden. This tradition reaches back to the Hebrew Bible where God appeared to the people of Israel on Mt Sinai in a thick dark cloud that I talked about last Sunday as Araphel “where Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” (Ex. 20:21)The dark cloud is mentioned again in 1 Kings 8 during the dedication of the temple of Solomon: “When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the temple. Solomon said, ‘The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud;’”

To experience God directly one enters into what some theologians have called: ”the Cloud of Unknowing”. St. John of the Cross in his book, the  “dark night of the soul” says it’s like being in the womb of God: you know you are safely held and nourished. You grow without needing to understand how. People understand the Black Madonna as a symbol for the womb of God.

Valerie Kaur – Sikh woman in a Watchnight Prayer Service at Metropolitan AME in Washington D.C. in December 2016:

What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our story is one that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears “You are brave”? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?

Let us enter deeper into Advent Learning the Ways to Walk in the Dark, and the gifts they teach and the gifts they bring us.