Joyful is the Dark

It’s dark. Not metaphorically speaking. Like, actually, really dark. Today is the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and yesterday was the darkest day ever on record in Seattle. It was dark when I drove my boys to school in the morning and the sun set at 4:24pm.

When it’s physically dark like this, the metaphorical darkness can feel especially oppressive. Political chaos, community upheaval, personal sadness. It feels more blanketing when the actual light around you is already dim.

The Church calendar tells us it’s advent and this means that we are in a season of waiting.  We are a people in between Advents– the advent of Christ and the advent of Christ-come-again.  Every December, we remember the waiting and we continue the waiting.  We remember the arrival of Immanuel, God-With-Us, who brought light into all this darkness and yearn still for the next arrival, when the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in this, our weary world, will be complete.

We are told during the advent season to watch for the light. There are advent blogs by this name, sermon series, you name it.  It’s even the title of one of the advent books on my shelf and while I don’t think it’s bad advice, the phrase brings to mind the quiver of a candle in a dusky room.   A sea-worn sailor watchful for the morning sun to break on the horizon.   The late afternoon sunlight pushing its way through dappled trees to light a patch on the forest floor.

In other words, a glimmer of light so small that we must strain our eyes to see it.  This is how I have observed Advent all my life. The watchful waiting for the striking of a match in a world otherwise obscured by darkness.

Image result for candle image

But this year, and perhaps every year, that doesn’t feel sufficient.  When I have to say goodbye to my dad after a holiday visit and walk away from him at the memory care facility where he now lives, his Alzheimer’s so advanced he can no longer remember my sons’ names, a weak flame on a windy night isn’t enough.  When I read about the protests in India and the deadly bus crash in Guatemala and the tweets of our President disparaging a teenage girl, a faint flicker isn’t going to cut it.  We need more than that.

A few years ago I was awakened in the wee hours of the morning by the sound of one of my boys softly calling my name.  I shuffled sleepily out of bed and discovered that the storm outside had awakened my oldest, then six, and he was afraid.  I carried him to our room and settled him into the bed with us.  We laid still in the darkness for over an hour as the wind whipped at the windows and the thunder boomed about us.  Every now and then, there was a flash of lighting so bright it lit up the entire room.

That’s what I want to watch for.  Jesus didn’t come quietly.  It wasn’t a silent night.  He came to us through a woman in labor.  One of the most wild and exhilarating things to behold.   When I was working as a birth doula I witnessed the arrival of countless babes and I’m guessing there was blood and screaming and untold cacophony in the so-called stable that night.  And the life that followed was anything but meek and mild.  The life of Jesus was one of resistance and shocking non-conformity.  The life of Jesus uprooted and challenged and unsettled everything we thought we knew about God and the world.

So it seems more suitable that we look and long for more than the weak light of a little candle.  As I behold the bleakness in the world this advent season I want so much more than that. I want something huge.  I want something shocking.  I’m longing for something to crash and bang wildly into the world.  I’m longing for disruption and something that shakes the ground beneath me.  I’m done watching for the light.  As I sit through the darkest day of the year, I’m watching for the lightning.

I’m also going to remember that using the word “darkness” as synonymous only with evil and desperate sadness does a disservice to the word. Darkness, while logically connected with destitution of all sorts, is also a space of profound intimacy and pulsing beauty.

Seeds bursting in the dark soil of the earth and growing inexplicably into zinnias, sunflowers, carrots, and curly kale. Lovers caressing. Friends gathering for warmth around a fire. Hydrogen and helium blazing across the blackened skies. The whishing and whirring of a mother’s mitosis; the dividing of cells in the black space of the womb. Luminous sea creatures living in “the midnight zone” of the ocean where sunlight cannot reach.

I rocked and nursed and rocked and nursed my babies through countless midnight hours, stroking their silken cheeks with the back of my fingers. In bed at night before I fall asleep, when the distractions of the day are but shadow and vapor, my imagination explodes and both prayers and dreams abound.

There is a hymn called “Joyful is the Dark” by Brian Wren and it offers a radiant alternative to the notion of darkness as merely desperation.

Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God
rolling cloud of night beyond all naming…

Joyful is the dark Spirit of the deep,
winging wildly o’er the world’s creation,
silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright,
swooping with the beauty of a raven

Darkness can be squeezing and suffocating and scary but it’s in darkness that we can best see the brilliant bursts of lightning. And in the silent spaces in between the wild, cacophonous crashes, I’m going to slow my breathing, close my eyes, and listen for the great Spirit of the deep; the holy hidden God.

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