Photo credit: Felix Mittermeier
Readings: Psalm 139:1-14, John 1:1-11, 14-18, Heaven and Hell #589:2-3 (see below)
See also on Youtube at: https://youtu.be/P47Pkq8lXlU
Our text for today is a beloved advent reading. It reflects some very traditional and meaningful language, particularly prevalent in the gospel of John: darkness and light. Lots the ways that we talk about Advent and Christmas center on darkness and light - Jesus is called the light of the world, we hold candlelight services, we delight in our twinkly Christmas decorations set off majestically by the blackness of night. Not only moths, but we humans are drawn to bright lights, especially set off by dark surroundings. Perhaps this is an evolutionary longing, for at nighttime, we are surrounded by stars in a dark sky.
The gospel of John does not begin with the traditional nativity story. Instead, the author takes us back to the very beginning of the bible, linking the significance of Jesus’ birth to the story of creation, and extending the same language of light and dark in Genesis to the coming of the Lord. Lightness and darkness is powerful metaphorical language. And, while during advent we use it in a theological context, this is not the only context in which the words are used, of course. Lightness and darkness is part of our daily experience of the world, and we use those words to describe the world around us, in both useful and harmful ways. To quote the Rev. Dr. Will Gafney: “it is far too easy for us as Americans to hear those words through our history of race and racism. We are taught from a young age that everything light and white is good and everything dark and black is bad. Even when we are not thinking about it, it is in the back of our minds. Race is always in the room for us.”(1)
So I thought we might take some time today expand our awareness of the way culture places a judgment and a burden upon the words darkness and blackness, and how, if we use our theological imaginations, we might excavate something deeper and more meaningful from an exploration of the notion of darkness. In the phrasing of Rev. Howard Thurman, we might come to appreciate “The Luminous Darkness.”
So, I do want to say that employing darkness and light language in a theological way is not wrong. It is actually deeply resonant with the experience of all human beings, simply because of the way our eyes work, biologically. We have all had the experience of being in the literal dark, and not having certain information about our surroundings because we cannot see it - there is not enough light for our eyes to process the information. Then, when some light becomes present, new information appears to our comprehension. It is easy and natural to extend this as a metaphor for both our intellectual and emotional experience, and Swedenborg in particular, does this a lot. Intellectually, we describe coming to understand something as “seeing the light,” or conversely, being in dark as a state of obscurity or of not understanding. And emotionally, the presence of light is deeply comforting. Being in the dark (both physically and mentally) can feel scary. I remember myself as a child, at an age way older than I would have liked to admit it, sleeping with the light on at night because I was so unsettled by the dark. Or how even now, I dread the ending of daylight savings each year because of how it makes 5pm feel like midnight. Light can be such a comfort to us. Just think of how mesmerizing and meditative it is to stare into the dancing fire of a fireplace.
But, there can also be other experiences of darkness, just as there can be other experiences of light. I can additionally recall from childhood, growing up in the country, away from city lights, how spectacular the stars were. The extreme darkness of the night sky delivered forth an unparalleled view of the universe that we inhabit. Here, the light from Philly obscures my view, prevents me from seeing what is really out there in the night sky, prevents me from experiencing the awe and the beauty and the connection that is available in a darker context.
Or consider the fact that many seeds require darkness to germinate. It is fascinating, but the presence of light actually inhibits the production of a chemical that causes germination, that prompts the seed to start growing. Or, another similar example: the womb. We all, each of us, as much as we might fear the dark out here in the world, have had an essential experience of mothering darkness, of soft and safe darkness, the darkness in which we were formed.
So, in as much as some experiences of light and dark might suggest to us certain metaphorical meanings, they cannot necessarily express the whole of spiritual experience. Just as Father/Son religious language elucidates some aspects of God’s nature, it also obscures other aspects; this is just how metaphorical language works. Habit and ritual has led us in one direction in understanding darkness, particularly during Advent, but clearly, there is much more to be excavated from the notion. When Swedenborg talks of correspondences, his particular moniker for the metaphorical and spiritual meaning of words in the bible, he repeatedly says that each word or thing has both a positive and negative correspondence. While we might for the most part associate darkness with obscurity, the examples earlier show that, particularly when coupled with warmth, that darkness can also represent a state of productive readiness.
To quote the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown:
I am utterly convinced that God is up to something in the pitch black nights of our lives, in the womb of our own souls and being. There is something gossamer and brilliant about the night in God, and in the promises that only come in the dark. We are being born! (2)
When we consider the text from John, we see that he was co-opting the word darkness to describe aspects of the world as he saw it: a world that was in obscurity, a world that didn’t understand, a world that needed help. We are told the darkness did not comprehend the light. Other translations say the darkness did not overcome or overtake the light. Parts of us, parts of all of us, will always be resistant to Jesus’ message of love, will cling to our misunderstandings, will prove that we cannot hear what we are not ready to hear. We all know that information, truth, illumination is not always enough to get through to a resistant heart.
But the light spoke to some. The light continues to speak even now. And so we must ask: what was happening in the darkness to make them ready, to make us ready, for the coming the light? Darkness is not synonymous with nothingness. It is not that God was absent from the world until Jesus’ birth. God has been present with the world from the beginning. And so we can return to the creation story that is suggested by John to see another way of understanding the darkness. In the words of Wil Gafney:
We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God. Out of darkness God created everything that is, including light.(3) Or in the words of Kelle Brown:
The vast and nurturing embrace of blackness birthed the light. I contend that the dark is where God begins God’s work with and in us. It is but the inside of the chalice where the sacrament of communion with God occurs.(4)
Darkness is not always something to endure or to fight against. Darkness allied with coldness of heart is debilitating and destructive indeed. Darkness allied with stubbornness and self-righteousness is thick and impenetrable. But darkness allied with warmth, darkness as the matrix which makes creation possible, darkness as a precursor and foundation to state of productive readiness, this is darkness that allows us to see what we cannot see in the light. It allows us to see differently, like my childhood starry nights away from the city.
But in the words of Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney once more, “somewhere along the way we were taught to fear the dark, to fear the night, to fear the holy blackness that is the swaddling blanket of creation.” (5) We don’t have to, though. This advent, as we wait in the darkness, and look for the coming of the light, may we know and understand that sometimes the darkness has a holy purpose. If we wish it, the darkness prepares us for whatever our next stage might be. For the word became flesh and dwelt among us. How did the word become flesh? By spending time in the warm productive darkness, the womb of Mary. The light of the world formed in mothering darkness.
Even the darkness will not be dark to you; for the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:12)
1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
John 1:1-11, 14-18
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Heaven and Hell #589:2-3
 Every event, or every result, happens in an equilibrium, or happens by one force acting and another allowing itself to be acted upon, or by one force actively flowing in and the other accepting and yielding appropriately.
In the natural world, what acts and reacts is called force or energy, but in the spiritual world what acts and reacts is called life and volition. Life there is a living force and volition is a living energy, and the actual equilibrium is called a state of freedom. This spiritual balance or freedom occurs, then, between the good acting from the one side and the evil reacting from the other, or from the evil acting on the one side and the good reacting from the other.
…The reason the spiritual balance is between good and evil is that all human life has to do with good and evil, and our volition is their recipient vessel.
There is also a balance between what is true and what is false, but this is secondary to the balance between good and evil. The balance between the true and the false is like the balance between light and darkness, whose effect on members of the vegetable kingdom depends on the amount of warmth or cold there is in the light or darkness. You can tell that the light and shade themselves do not accomplish anything, only the warmth they bring, from looking at like amounts of light and darkness in winter and in spring.