By Ginny Schaeffer
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
For those who lived
in a land of deep shadows – light!
sunbursts of light!
Well, here we are, the darkest day of the year when those of us who live in the northern hemisphere are tilted the furthest away from the sun. Since the autumn equinox, our daylight hours have been fading minute-by-minute. Gone are the glorious days of fall with its coat of many colors and spring is still months away. We are in the season of cold, grey days heaped one on top of another. Rain, sleet and snow will be our weather companions for the next dozen or so weeks. We will hunker down, layer on, shovel out, throw another log on the fire and muddle our way through winter the best we can.
One of the great lessons that Nature attempts to teach us in this season is that darkness is a part of life. Yet, we humans do not like the dark. We do whatever we can to avoid it. Unlike many of our animal sisters and brothers, we depend heavily upon our vision to know what is going on. We need light to maneuver, to make our way through life with as few bumps and bruises as possible.
Then there is our imagination. Parents often struggle to get their children asleep because as soon as the lights go off the monsters come out and hide beneath the bed or in the closet. As adults, we are not much better. Sounds become amplified in the dark. The noise of a house settling or a cat chasing its tail becomes an intruder. Darkness is foreign to us. It can leave us feeling unsettled, out of control, vulnerable.
The same can be said of the darkness that sometimes falls over our hearts, minds and spirits, that pall of grey that covers our emotions, thoughts and ability to relate fully with others, God and even ourselves. (Please note I am not writing about clinical depression that may require treatment with a qualified therapist and psychiatrist but by the darkness that goes hand-in-hand with being human.) This darkness is just as real as that of winter and the night. It can rob us of our energy, passion, interests, our ability to think clearly, even our trust and hope. We know this darkness as sadness, loneliness, fear, shame, boredom, grief, anger and hatred.
The dark night of the heart, mind and spirit can be precipitated by many things: loss of a loved one, failure, betrayal by a spouse or friend, a serious illness, unemployment, divorce or the death of a life-long dream.
As a people, we are experiencing communal darkness on many levels: a global pandemic that is running rampant through our country and the world. The darkness of inequality as revealed by the killings of people of color and the long lines of those needing food and living under the threat of eviction. Climate change, lest we forget, is quickly becoming the darkness of climate catastrophe. Anger, prejudice, incivility and disinformation are driving wedges between family and friends so deeply that we cannot even talk to each other anymore.
Yes, we are living in dark times, we are living “in a land of shadows;” and, we are a people who have seen a great light. In just a few days we will celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. In the Gospel of John, we will read, “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; and, the darkness could not put it out.” (John 1:5) In the other gospels, and many of the Christmas carols we will sing, we will hear the story of shepherds, tending their flocks at night, awestruck by angels breaking through the heavens, filled with the glory of God, singing praises and announcing the birth of Jesus. Then there are the wise men, following a star in the dark of night to the birthplace of “…the child who has been born king of the Jews.”
The Light that bursts forth in these stories does not extinguish the darkness but is revealed through it. Without darkness there would be no light. Darkness, as difficult as it can be to live with, allows us to see the light.
The darkness that we sometimes experience within ourselves can also bring to light those parts of ourselves that we would rather not face such as our faults, wounds, defenses, patterns of thinking and doing that get us in trouble, dependence on denial, distractions and self-indulgences to avoid challenges, hardships and sufferings.
In his book of Advent reflections Richard Rohr writes:
Our Christian wisdom is to name the darkness as
darkness and the Light as light, and to learn how
to live and work in the Light so that darkness
does not overcome us… That is the narrow birth
canal of God into the world – through the
darkness and into an even greater light.[i]
You read that correctly, darkness “…is the narrow birth canal of God into the world… into an even greater light.” Whether it is the darkness that surrounds a small stable in Bethlehem or the darkness that encompasses our own hearts, it is through this darkness that God is born and Light breaks forth for all to see.
Our task then is to stop running from the darkness, to face it with courage, an open heart and mind and to trust in God’s love, goodness and desire for our well-being. First, we must be willing to recognize the darkness that is within us and in the world. Then we name it: anxiety, insecurity, sickness, betrayal, failure, racism, Coronavirus, greed, animosity, self-righteousness, etc. With humility we can then follow the thread back to its origins. In the light of God’s love and mercy, we can explore how this darkness took root in our lives, how it began, where it has seeped into our lives and how it is manifested through us. It is here, in our new-found awareness, that we can experience true and radical freedom. We can now choose, with the grace of God and the support of others when needed, to live in that Light that is compassion, mercy, inclusivity, justice and care for others. It is here that we can ask, “What can I learn?” It is in this transformation that the Light of the world is born in us and through us. It is here that we can experience love, peace and joy, not as our culture and society define them, but as pure gift of God.
[i] Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2008),