The darkness and the light (Advent 1)
Sunday 03 December
The Revd Canon Peter Moger
(Advent 1) – Sung Eucharist
The darkness and the light
This afternoon, at around 3.00, the windows of the houses in Minster Court and Minster Yard will burst into light. For some years, now, there has been a tradition that the residents put Scandinavian-style candlebridges in their windows and light them from Advent Sunday until at least the Feast of the Epiphany. This can be a challenge – either in terms of the number of windows if you happen to be the Dean, or the problem of getting mains power to the lamps if you have secondary glazing (in the case of the Chancellor). The prize goes, though, to the Director of Music, who not only has a dedicated wiring system, and sophisticated timers, but has also carefully programmed a phased illumination of the 3 storeys of the house. The rest of us make do with scuttling from one floor to another! But the impact, if you walk across the Dean’s Park after dark, is quite stunning: the light, shining in the darkness.
The celebration of Advent in the northern hemisphere so often focuses around light. Our readings, hymns and anthems pick up on the theme of waiting for Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, to scatter the darkness. Today’s Collect, drawing on Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us to
cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light
At the start of each Sunday Eucharist we light one of the candles in the Advent Wreath. This evening at the Advent Procession, the Minster will be lit by almost 2000 candles, with the light growing and moving from West to East. And it all culminates in the reading of the great Christmas Gospel at midnight on Christmas Eve, when we are reminded that ‘the Word’ who ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ is ‘the light of all people’ and that
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
Christian Scripture – and consequently, Christian theology – makes great use of light imagery. Jesus refers to himself as ‘the Light of the World’ and promises that those who follow him ‘will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’
With all this talk of light, there is inevitably a shadow side. In St John’s first Letter, we read that
God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
And so because God and light are almost equated, darkness becomes associated with all that is not God, and by inference, with all that is not good. The use of light and darkness in the Bible becomes morally loaded. St Paul tells us to
lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; [to]… live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy [which are of the night]. (Rom 13.12-13)
And this is certainly not confined to the Bible. We use the word ‘dark’ almost as a synonym for evil: we speak of a film or novel being ‘dark,’ there is the ‘dark web’, the ‘dark lord’ in Harry Potter…. And at times throughout history, this indiscriminate linking of ‘dark’ with ‘evil’ has been used with devastating results to oppress people of dark skin, and those who sight is impaired. This was around in Jesus’ time. When Jesus healed a man who had been born blind, the question was asked; ‘who sinned – this man or his parents?’ Jesus set them right on that one, but even so, the writer of St John’s Gospel adds as words of Jesus:
We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day;
night is coming when no one can work.
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
Over the centuries, we have bought into a dualistic world view in which light and darkness exist in opposition, and in which darkness is to be overcome with light. Even in a small city like York, we are never in complete darkness at night – there is so much artificial light. I shall always remember walking out into the night on the island of Iona and being struck by the utter darkness – punctured only by the stars above – and of the strangeness of it.
Our inherited approach to light and darkness is fine if we understand the limitations; and it’s fine if we ourselves are in a good place – if we enjoy good physical, mental and spiritual health, enriching relationships, security, and enough of this world’s goods.
But what about when that’s not the case - when things go wrong? We will all know of times, either in our own lives or in the lives of others, when we will have spoken about being in what we might call a ‘dark place’. We live in a world where a great deal goes wrong: we suffer the pain of bereavement, of separation and divorce, of dysfunctional relationships, of fears, of serious illness – where people suffer, and find themselves in dark places through no fault of their own. How does a received theology of light and darkness speak into these situations? With great difficulty. All it can do is place the light alongside the darkness and keep repeating the mantra ‘walk in the light’ which – to someone whose is experiencing life as darkness – is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
But what if we were to look at things differently? What if we were to set light and darkness not in opposition to each other, but in balance? What if we were to avoid the temptation to say ‘God is over here – in the light, but not over there in the darkness?’ What if we are to avoid a straight dualism, but stress that God is in fact in all things, and in all situations?
Let’s start at the beginning with the creation. One of the points the writers of Genesis were keen to get across was the essential goodness of creation – ‘God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good’. God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.’ No dualism here; no false distinction of light and darkness, good and bad. As the picture is painted of the ‘days’ of creation unfolding, we are told
And there was evening, and there was morning,
the first / the second / the third day….
The evening and the morning are there, in balance – and more than that, the darkness of night is there first; it precedes the light of morning; all God does is to separate the two – not offer any value judgement.
It’s fascinating to scour the Bible and see how many really important events take place, not in the light of day, but under the cover of darkness.
Today we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath to remember the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Miriam and many others. Very early on, God tells Abraham (at night) to look at the stars in the sky to illustrate how numerous God’s people will become. Jacob has his dream of a ladder from earth to heaven, and recognises the presence of God with him in that place – at night – this wasn’t a daydream. Later on, Jacob wrestles with God – through the night, until daybreak – and received his new name Israel. Perhaps the greatest event of all in the history of the Hebrew people – their Exodus from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea – takes place at night. And Moses receives God’s law on Mount Sinai in clouds of deep darkness.
Moving into the New Testament, the news of the birth of Jesus is proclaimed by angels to shepherds who are ‘keeping watch over their flocks by night.’ And in the hours immediately before Jesus’ death – the death which secures the salvation of the world – Matthew records that ‘there was darkness over the whole land’. This was not the darkness of evil rejoicing over the death of the Son of God – but the working out of atonement – at-one-ment – of God present and active in the darkness. The resurrection of Jesus was discovered at first light – but had already happened – at night.
The Biblical pattern, taken as a whole, is that darkness and light exist not in opposition, but in balance. The writer of Psalm 139 perhaps puts it best:
Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day : the darkness and light to thee are both alike.
What is being said here is that God is just as present in the darkness as he is in the light.
There is a view that, when dark times come to us, we should endure them as best we can – clinging onto our faith in God if we are able – and pray for light to dawn. But the experience of some of the holiest men and women is that it is precisely in these dark times that they have discovered the reality of presence of God. One such saint who discovered this was the 16th century mystic John of Cross. One commentator has said of him that he has taught us that
God puts out our lights to keep us safe, because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going.
To be told to ‘walk in the light of Christ’ is good advice. But it doesn’t always work for everyone. Advent offers us the opportunity – while we wait for the light – to re-read our Bibles and re-think our view of light and darkness; to discover that, to God
the darkness and the light are both alike.
God our creator,
to whom darkness and light are both alike,
be present with all who love you
that whether we live in light or darkness
we may dwell in safety and in peace,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.