Matthew 4:12-17, Isaiah 9:1-2
January 26, 2014
Advent has always been my favorite season of the Church Year. But this year, for many reasons, Epiphany is captivating my heart. I find myself drawn toward deep meditation of Light and Darkness. That is probably because I’m coming out of an extended Night Journey since our daughter Sarah’s breakdown in 2010. I’m again entering the Light in a new place, in a new way.
I had another sermon in process, going a completely different direction, but I scrapped it. I could preach that sermon anytime, but I could not preach this one until now.
Before I get into the heart of my reflections, I have to make a qualifying statement. There is a difference between the Darkness of the Soul Journey, which comes to all of us sooner or later, and the darkness that people with mental illness can suffer. Many biological conditions create a darkness that, while treatable to some extent, can at times lack sufficient relief. This is a harsh reality of a different kind of darkness than the one I am speaking about today.
In these moments, we are reflecting on a darkness that, after long waiting–in this life–gives way to the dawn.
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”
Some people see that great light while others do not. Matthew speaks of the Light; John the Baptizer bears witness to the Light; Jesus comes, announcing the Light and, in his Being, bearing Light. Some see and respond. Others observe from a distance. Some are indifferent or otherwise occupied. There are those who are threatened by the Light. Yet Matthew quotes the Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, declaring,
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”
It occurred to me recently that we are often taught, whether actively or passively, to view Darkness as “bad” and Light as “good.” But we could see Darkness and Light in a starkly different way. We could understand Darkness as gestating, seeding, and preparing. We could envision Light as birthing, flowering, and revealing. What a difference it makes if we view Darkness and Light this way!
People who sit in darkness, unless they are paralyzed by depression, are generally not passively just “sitting” there. Instead, they are yearning, hoping, waiting, and believing. They are longing for the Light. They are dreaming of the Light. Miracle of miracles, they are often reflecting the Light in the Darkness, even when they do not know it. Others see it, although the Light Bearers rarely recognize its width and breadth.
Something else happens in the Darkness as it seeds the Light. That is growth. We don’t see that inner transformation anymore than we see a seed underground starting to open up in the cool, moist earth. The darkness is seeding the Light.
When the seed turns to flower and bursts from the ground, or when the Light shines at long last, we finally see. Our hearts are leaning toward Life, toward Light. We are longing for its presence. Yet the Night Journey can become the womb where Light slowly gestates and is painstakingly born.
As the people of Jesus’ day “sat in darkness,” they were living under the thumb of Roman oppression, poverty, and a host of other ills. And yet, as they watched and waited, as they lived and dreamed, the Darkness heaved its way into the Light, and the two connected in some cosmic way I cannot explain.
Sometimes we are called to be prophets, sages, and witnesses, proclaiming “No more!” to the world about its own twisted, tortured modes of Darkness. Sometimes we are called to simply walk the journey in front of us and bring as much Light as we can to the Darkness that surrounds us.
When our daughter, Sarah, came home to live with us after her breakdown in 2010, her darkness was deep and utterly impenetrable. It hung like a heavy cloak over her entire being and filled the house with her pain. She hardly left the house for months except to exercise and go to church. What could I do? How could I help her? The brutal lesson for me was that I could not lift her darkness. I could let her Darkness overtake me. It would be so easy to do that. But I chose a better path. Every morning, when I got up, the first thing I said to myself was this, “Today, Mary Hammond, you will be Light in this house. Today you will shine Light on Sarah’s darkness.”
Sometimes that is the only shining we can do, but even that Darkness seeds the dawn, if only in us. We cannot know its impact and gift to others, and I would suspect that it is usually greater than we can imagine.
There are also those remarkable, transforming moments when Darkness gives way to the Dawn, and new life presents itself before our eyes. Like Job after God speaks and offers him new vision after new vision, we are humbled. We are astounded. We are changed.
Darkness can gestate the dawn in our own lives if we are open to that difficult and challenging journey. It forces us to face things we might rather leave undisturbed. We have to be honest with ourselves about ourselves, and about our stories. We can’t hide in our many defenses, or we will never do the soul work required of us.
Through various hard times in my life, I have learned that the Darkness eventually yields its own inscrutable wisdom. Darkness is rough. Darkness can be debilitating. Darkness is not fun. Yet, if we characterize Darkness as bad, and Light as good, the whole goal of Darkness is then to get into the Light as fast as we can. I get that. It is absolutely natural to feel that way. But there are no shortcuts through the Darkness–at least not through the Night Journey of the Soul.
The lessons and gifts of the Darkness in my life more often reveal themselves as the Light begins shining again. For years, I looked back at 1989-92, the first time we fought so hard to keep Sarah alive, as some kind of initiation into a more rugged and durable spirituality. Gone were all the simplistic answers. Gone was the belief that heartfelt prayer could change anything. Stripped down to the radical core of unconditional love, my life changed dramatically both on the inside and outside. But it took getting out of the Darkness a little way for me to begin to see.
We are given the opportunity in this life to let the Darkness seed the Light. Don’t be afraid of what is inside. The rugged Soul Work that we do can become both our own healing and our gift to the world for its continued redemption. Really. We keep doing the work of Jesus and bearing the Light of Jesus, everyday.
That Light shines a thousand times brighter after we sit in the Womb of Darkness for a long time. If we are yearning, hoping, and waiting–if we are open to the lessons of the Night Journey–when the Light begins to shine, we will be the first to run toward its Warmth and Welcome. Amen.