Expecting in the unexpected: Learning in darkness

When did we learn to be afraid of the dark? This is the question I’ve been pondering this week as we continue our Advent journey. Maybe we are afraid because our parents told us to come in before the sunset, or maybe it’s the unsettling, unknowing, uncontrollable feeling we get when we find ourselves alone on a moonless night. Perhaps we are afraid of the dark because our language has made it so. In the common language of our modern world, darkness has become synonymous with evil, and for some understandable reasons. Psychologists say we are dualistic thinkers. We thrive on polarities. There is black and white, happy and sad, right and wrong, good and evil, left and right. Without thinking, we filter these polarities through the imagery of darkness and light. Eventually we begin to imagine a universe in which we are caught between the cosmic struggle of light (the good) and darkness (the evil).

History would remind us that this dichotomous thinking is nothing new. All the way back in the third century a worldview known as Manichaeism emerged, a belief system rooted in the idea that the world was built on a primaeval conflict between darkness and light. Three centuries prior to the manichaeists, a Jewish separatist community in Qumran penned scrolls that spoke of a day when the children of light would destroy the children of the darkness. These documents survive today, and are known to us as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written somewhere in the hundred years before Christ, this dualism of darkness and light likely found its way into the cultural vocabulary into which Jesus emerged. The problem with this ancient dualism, and the reason it was declared heretical by the early church, is that it presupposed that only certain people possessed light (literally en-lightened ones) while others were possessed by darkness. For the Essenes, the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, those in darkness were women, non-Jews, those with physical and cognitive disabilities and just about everyone else who didn’t see the world the way they did.

Dualistic thinking leads to tribalistic living. The modern corollaries of the dark-light dualism are not difficult to come by, not least in today’s cultural conversation around race in America. If light is good and darkness is bad, it does not take much of a conceptual leap to get to the kind of thinking that says white is good and black is bad. Whether we know it or not, our brains likely participate in this heretical construal of reality. And as philosophy reminds us, the way we think about the world never stays in the abstract. Rather, the way we think about the world becomes the world we live in.

So how do we become less afraid of the dark? How do we move beyond the dualistic thinking of light vs. dark? The prophets and poets who gave us the biblical text were less afraid of the dark than we are. They began the story, and thus began the world, in darkness. In the beginning the earth was a formless void, and darkness was on the face of deep. And there in the darkness is the Spirit of God, hovering on the face of the waters. I have always loved the question my grandfather posed about this verse: “For how long did God dwell in the dark?”

As much time as we spend longing for the light, many of us learn who we are when we are stuck in the dark. The father of a dear friend of mine describes this experience of living in the darkness in his book “A Grace Disguised.” After losing his mother, wife and daughter to a drunk driver, Jerry Sittser found himself plunged into the darkness of grief. In the book, he describes how hard he fought the darkness: pushing it away, refusing to enter it, running away from it.  But then he realized that the only way to get to the light of dawn was move through the deepest parts of the night. To get to the healing of the rising sun, Jerry would have to walk through the darkness first. His story reminds me of the psalmist’s words, “You have taken my lover and friends from me, now that darkness is my only companion.” Darkness can be a companion, a friend, a place of struggle and revelation. It can be a womb of growth, and balm in loss. It was in the darkness that Jerry found God’s grace not wrapped in angelic light, but disguised and hidden in the middle of the night.

The God of Jerry’s grace is not afraid of the dark. The psalmist ponders this in one of the most beautiful poems: “If I say, ‘surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness is not as dark to you, the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:11-12). God does not experience darkness the way we do. In God’s darkness there is light; in God’s night there is day. When we are afraid of the dark, when our lives are hidden in the dark night of the soul, God is there, resting comfortably in our shadows.

We may spend much of our life pushing away the darkness, but the truth is, our lives begin in darkness. As my wife and I enter the third trimester of pregnancy, and as we serve as co-pastors during this strange long night of Advent, I have begun to ponder the existence of our child-to-be. For nine months, infants dwell in the womb, and their spirit hovers over the face of the deep within their earthly mothers. Before we are born, we rest in a darkness of which we are unafraid. Life begins not in the light, but in the dark. Of this the psalmist also has much to say: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. … My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:13-15). God does God’s best work in the darkness, forming our life and giving it shape and meaning.

Even as adults we spend a quarter of our life being formed in the darkness. The modern world tends to view sleep as more of a chore than a place of formation, but theologically sleep is like a womb. When we sleep, we are held in God’s life. Though conventionally we imagine that the day begins with the sunrise, Judaism has long held that the day begins in the night. The day begins with our sleep, where for eight hours we are shaped in the darkness of dreams and rest. The day begins not with our accomplishments, but with our doing nothing at all — with God’s doing. As one youth pastor friend of mine loved to say, “We are human beings, not human doings.”  This is true also of the most sacred of days. The Sabbath, as Jewish tradition has it, begins not with morning light, but with the setting sun on Friday evening. And hence on the Christian Sabbath, on the third day, Christ arose while it was still dark. Before the coming dawn of Easter, Christ had to walk through the deepest parts of the night. For three days God worked in the dark, and on the other side the light of the world rose again.

The book of Revelation says that in the end there will be no more night. Christ will be our moon, Christ our star, Christ our guiding light. Perhaps there will no more night not because darkness will no longer exist, but rather because we, like God, will look into the darkness and see only light. On that day, and may it be soon, we will no longer be afraid of the dark.