(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on December 15, 2019)
Let me begin with a little astronomy.
This morning the sun rose at 7:25, and it will set today at 4:36, for a total of 9 hours and 10 minutes of daylight.
Tomorrow we’ll lose 24 seconds of daylight, and the next day another 20 seconds, and the next day some more, so that by the time we get to the Winter Solstice on December 21, the sun will rise at 7:29 and set at 4:38, which makes for a day lasting just over nine hours.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, in other words, the season of Advent corresponds to the season of growing darkness
And that’s not a bad thing—or so I’ve come to believe thanks to reading a book by Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor: Learning to Walk in the Dark. In it, Taylor examines the under-appreciated blessings of darkness.
In doing so, she realizes she’s running against some pretty strong cultural and Christian beliefs. Think of all the negative associations we have with darkness. We fear walking down dark city streets. We use nightlights and yard lights to keep true darkness at bay.
In Christian and Jewish thought, light is almost always good, and darkness is usually bad. For example, in the first epistle of John we hear this verse: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
And the dualistic language of popular theology often sets up opposites: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, and light/dark. The second of those pairings is always lesser than the first. One is close to God, and the other farther away.
So in her book, Taylor tries to reclaim the spiritual riches of the dark. She contrasts them to what she calls “full solar spirituality,” in which all prayers get answered, all stories have a happy ending, and God gives clear guidance if we can just figure out how to ask him in the right way.
Now sometimes life does go like that. But when it doesn’t, maybe the darkness we experience needs to be reconsidered. Maybe it’s not the absence of God, but instead points us to a deeper understanding of God.
Taylor puts it this way: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
The Bible is actually more nuanced on the subject of darkness than we might realize. Jacob wrestles with an angel in the darkness, for example, a contest that leaves him with both a blessing and a limp. The Exodus from Egypt happens at night. Prophetic dreams and messages come in the darkness of sleep. Jesus was likely born in the darkness of a cave that served as a manger (for that is typically where animals were sheltered during his era). And he rose from the dead in the darkness of a cave serving as a tomb. Darkness, in other words, often contains the seeds of transformation.
Biology certainly teaches us that humans need darkness, too. Artificial light, especially from digital screens, messes with our circadian rhythms and disrupts our sleep patterns.
I think Taylor’s book is an especially appropriate read during Advent, this season when the secular year is winding down and the nights are growing longer. In the Christian calendar, this is a time of waiting, of anticipation, and of preparation. That’s why during Advent we get all of the scriptures relating to judgment and repentance.
In the Gospel reading for this morning, the message is a little less somber, but it’s still a far cry from the holly-jolly mood of the secular Christmas season. In it, Jesus is asked by John if he is the one for whom the Jewish people have long waited.
Jesus says: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
This message of transformation is echoed in the Magnificat, the Song of Mary that we sang earlier in this service. She also sings of what is to come, of the restoration of justice that will occur and the remarkable things that will be done by God.
All of this is wonderful, and exciting, and dramatic. But before these remarkable things happen, maybe it’s a good thing to rest in the darkness for awhile, to see what we can learn from it rather than just waiting for it to end.
This is the season of darkness is more ways than one. Seasonal Affective Disorder, for example, affects many of us, sapping our energy and bringing a weight of depression that is only eased when the longer days of spring arrive. And the holidays can be one of the hardest times of the year for those who’ve suffered losses.
But darkness can come upon us at any time of year, in many forms. The shadow falls upon us, for example, when we lose jobs, when marriages fall apart, when children struggle, and when we have poor health. That’s when we may think that if we’re in the darkness it our own fault and we just need to try harder and rely on God.
In contrast, one of the messages of Advent is that waiting in the darkness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s hard, and it often feels like it’s never going to end. But as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, there are things that we can learn only in the darkness.
I think one of those lessons is that the light, and the darkness, waxes and wanes. Think of the phases of the moon, says Taylor. When she goes out on her front porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it’s round and bright as a headlight; other nights it’s a thin crescent. Some nights it disappears altogether, and other nights it peeks only occasionally through the clouds. “All in all,” she writes, “the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day…. [and] what would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it?”
She continues: “To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”
That’s why faith and doubt, and light and dark, are not opposites. One cannot exist without the other. As different as they are, they come from and return to the same source.
A second lesson we can learn is that darkness is an essential part of being human. One of the things that can tip someone into depression, psychologists say, is what they call a “low tolerance for sadness.” That’s the belief that people are supposed to be happy all the time, and if you’re not, something’s wrong with you.
But the so-called dark emotions, which include sadness and fear, are simply part of being human. Sitting with them and experiencing them fully doesn’t mean you have to live with them forever. But it helps to realize they’re always going to occupy bedrooms in our psychic houses and they will come downstairs at least occasionally and take up residence in our living rooms. We may as well learn something from them when they’re sitting across from us in the evening.
And the third lesson is that sometimes it takes darkness to appreciate the light. The human eye is so sensitive at night that it can see a candle flame at a distance of more than five miles. At night, we can see stars that are 2.6 million light-years from earth. That isn’t true during the day, of course, when so many other things grab our attention. But in the darkness, we can truly see what is hidden during the day.
That’s something to think about when you feel surrounded by darkness. Look around to see if you can find a flame, or a star, someplace in the distance.
Let me end with one more quote from Taylor’s book:
“We are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know were we are going,” she writes. “When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence.”
So what would it mean if you asked your darkness to teach you? What lessons does it hold that you can’t learn in the full light of day?
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.