And I will give you the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the LORD, which call you by your name, am the God of Israel.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
’There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
34‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
At the beginning of Advent, every single year, the lectionary challenges us with a mini-apocalypse about the end of days. This year Luke 21 tells us: “When these things begin to take place” – cataclysms of nature; distress & tumult upon the earth; fear & foreboding to come upon the people. Looking at various conflicts around the globe today, the gospel writer might speak of ‘distress among nations’. Looking at discussions on climate change where the ‘future of the planet’ is literally in the balance, Luke could easily speak of global leaders as ‘disturbed by the roaring of the sea.’ He might draw a parallel to the perilous journey of refugees, as they flee from war & violence in their home countries, as ‘people fainting from fear’ with walls & guns & teargas, their most likely “welcome”.
It feels jarring, counter-cultural, a dark way to enter into Advent, a season filled with expectation, celebration, tree-trimming, cookie baking, decorating, shopping, carol singing. Instead, we are told to pay attention.
Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness & the anxieties of life, that day will close on you suddenly, like a trap.” Jesus describes a world reeling in pain. Roaring seas, distress among nations, people fainting in fear. “When you see these things, don’t turn away.”
Don’t entertain or medicate yourself away. Jesus is calling his disciples toward courage: “stand up & raise your heads, because redemption is drawing near.” He offers these images to assure his them that the healing of the world is at hand, and that they need to stay alert & learn to read the signs of what is ahead. Jesus compels his hearers—and us—toward practices that help them stay grounded in their lives and God so as not to be caught unaware.
Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge tells us, “Advent begins in the dark. It is not a season for the faint of heart.” During Advent, we live with quiet anticipation in the “not yet.” Not an easy task in a world which applauds efficiency, shortcuts, end products, far more than it does the meandering journey through the dark. As the world speeds past darkness to the safe certainty of light, Advent reminds us that necessary things — things worth waiting for — happen in the dark.
This Advent, we will be exploring the gifts that can come out of the darkness, we will travel the way with the help of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark”. Of paths lit by lunar spirituality- the phases of the moon & starlight, not the bright unchanging sun of day. Of celebrating the 200th anniversary of the beloved Christmas carol, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” During the day it is hard to remember that all the stars in the sky are still out there, even when sunlight blocks them;.
As Christians in the northern hemisphere, we begin the liturgical year in deep darkness, as the days grow even darker, not lighter. In most of the OT, light stands for life & darkness-death. When God is angry, the people plunge into darkness. Locusts darken the land. In the Gospel of John, light stands for knowledge; darkness for ignorance. When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him. He has come so that people should not remain in the darkness, but they love darkness more than light. On the day he dies, darkness descends on the land from noon-3. 1st John: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Those are the words we will also sing in the prayer hymn.
There is one word for darkness in the Bible, however, that stands out from the rest – at the foot of Mt Sinai, after God has delivered Torah to the people, Exodus 20:21 declares:
”Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was”.
This word darkness is translated from the Hebrew word araphel, the thick darkness that indicates God’s presence. We often associate darkness with evil, and light with good but most of the time when God appears in OT it is through this araphel/darkness, as in Ex 20 & 2 Sam 22:10, 1 Kgs 8:12, Job 22:13, Ps 97:2.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
It is a helpful reminder to all who fear the dark. Darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God. The long nights of Advent & the while it was still dark on the early morning of Easter point us toward the God for whom darkness & light are alike. Both are fertile seasons for those who walk by faith & not by sight. This darkness is necessary to new life, even when it is uncomfortable or we feel it goes on too long. Next spring’s seeds break open out of the dark winter soil. Darkness is mostly negative from beginning to end in the Bible. But pay attention to Moments of transformation of narratives that took place at night or under cover of darkness. In the beginning, God’s Spirit hovers over dark water of chaos, preparing to create. God tells Abraham to look up at the stars in the night sky. Jacob wrestles with an angel at night with a vision of the stairway to heaven, followed by securing a blessing: “Surely God was in this place-and I did not know it.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the cover of night, and begins an inward spiritual journey. In the Nativity story, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream at night; shepherds look up into a night sky exploding with angels singing “Glory to God”. The Magi follow a star through the night. God gives birth to the incarnation of Christ as he forms in the deep darkness of the womb.
“One of the main things that tip people toward low-level depression, is a “low tolerance for sadness.” It is the inability to bear dark emotions that causes many of our most significant problems, not the emotions themselves. When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights, including but not limited to drugs, alcohol, shopping, shallow sex, and hours in front of the television set or computer. We need to walk in the dark to learn how to cope with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act.”
In his book, In the Shelter, poet & theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama asks:
“How do we say hello to here?” How do we live honestly in our own skins? How do we accept what’s here? How do we guard against numbness, denial, despair? Jesus challenges us to name & welcome the “here,” even when the here is perilous. When we acknowledge & welcome the “here” of human suffering we can also experience araphel, the nearness of God.
We are so busy constructing zones of safety that keep breaking down, it’s hard to notice where the suffering is coming from. We keep thinking the problem is out there, in the things that scare us: dark nights, dark thoughts, dark guests, dark emotions. If we could just defend our selves better against those things, we think, then surely we would feel more solid & secure. The real problem has far less to do with what is out there. The suffering comes from our reluctance to learn to walk in the dark.
Maybe darkness isn’t all that bad. The mystery of God comes to us many times in obscurity. As we cross over the threshold of Advent, what does it mean for us to lean into this season once again, to give ourselves to these weeks that show us that there is no place where God does not desire to meet us? How will we move through these days in a way that allows us to receive the gift that comes looking for us, that asks only that we open our hands, our eyes, our heart to the Love that knows our name?
Each Advent, we are called to revisit this place of apocalypse not only to recognize it, should it come, but also that we might enter more mindfully into our present situation and perceive the signs of how God is working out God’s longing in the world here and now. In the rhythm of our daily lives Christ calls us to stir up our courage and keep us grounded in God. Amid the destruction & devastation that are ever taking place in the world, Christ beckons us to to participate in the ways that he is already seeking to bring redemption & healing for the whole of creation. What habits will help keep you centered in God and help you recognize the presence of Christ? in order to participate in the redemption that God is ever working to bring about within creation?