The Gift of Darkness
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
I grew up in a Christian tradition that didn’t observe Advent. There was no blue or purple, no O Come O Come Emmanuel, no candles. The only Advent-y thing I can remember is my grandma giving my sister and me Advent calendars, and every day in December, we got to open a new door with chocolate behind it. I can’t quite remember, but probably the band at my church was rocking Hark the Herald Angels and O Come All Ye Faithful long before Christmas Day. My parents were definitely pumping the Manheim Steamroller Christmas tunes the second we cleaned up after Thanksgiving dinner.
Even still, there was something quiet about those weeks leading up to Christmas, something thoughtful, something slow. I remember sitting in the dark at night, looking into the soft glow of the Christmas tree, and wondering about that feeling I had. There was a thinness in those moments, when God felt closer but not quite present, when the air felt charged but I had to sit so still to really hear what it had to say to me.
Even as the world wanted to sprint to Christmas, to get to the exciting parts, even as I couldn’t wait to get up the next day to get my new piece of chocolate, God seemed to want to slow me down, to ask me to pay attention. To sit in the mystery, to stay in the darkness.
The scriptures we heard today were written from places of what I think we’d traditionally call darkness. When we think darkness, we think hardship, trial, difficulty, sadness. We speak of people struggling with depression or grief or mental illness as in “a dark place.”
The backdrop of the entire book of Isaiah is struggle, suffering. It was written through a few different phases of the people of Israel and Judah losing their home. First, the Assyrians came. The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell, and Jerusalem survived only by paying heavy tribute to the conquerors. Under the Assyrians, life in Judah became a struggle to survive, but it was better than what was to come.
When the Assyrian invaders weakened, the Babylonians moved in and took over. There was no longer any heavy tribute, just devastation. The people of Jerusalem were divided, some stolen from their homes and exiled to Babylon, some left behind in a ruined city.
It is from that place of hardship, of darkness that we hear these verses:
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
The situation isn’t so different in our Gospel today, except the Jews, the descendants of Judah and Israel, are now dominated by the Romans. They pay steep taxes, their worship life is heavily regulated, and the Roman army is at the ready to crush any hint of dissidence. The Jewish homeland is not their own. It hasn’t been for centuries.
It is from this place of hardship, of darkness, that Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
In the inside front cover of our new worship booklet, you’ll see a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor:
“Here is a helpful reminder to all who fear the dark. Darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God. The long nights of Advent and the early mornings of Easter both point us toward the God for whom darkness and light are alike. Both are fertile seasons for those who walk by faith and not by sight.”
Fertile seasons. I love that. Advent feels like a fertile season, a time of rich, dark soil and patient cultivation. I mean, think about it. Most seeds need darkness to germinate. It’s why we push them deep into the dirt and cover them up.
It’s because of a pigment on seeds called phytochrome. Here’s what I read about it: “Phytochrome is present in one form in light and present in a different form after a period in the dark. Normally, the light form decays to the dark form after a few HOURS, but it is converted back again after a few MINUTES in the light. So, a seed on the soil surface gets enough light to keep the dark form of phytochrome low for sufficient time to prevent germination initiation. It is only when the seed is in permanent darkness that the dark form of phytochrome is active for long enough to trigger germination.”
Light and dark each has their place, and it’s easier to imagine how we can be tripped up by the darkness than the light. But a seed actually needs a significant period of darkness to germinate, to sprout, to transform. And just a little light will stifle the whole process. It will harden the seed’s shell, keeping it dormant until it gets sufficient darkness.
What does this mean for our Christmas rush? The way our culture starts the season of light and joy earlier and earlier every year? Our grasping for all the light we can get in the midst of winter, our darkest season.
And let it be known that Rachel and I put up our Christmas decor on Friday. We are not exempt.
But what do we miss when we don’t let ourselves sit in the darkness? What change? What transformation? We seek the comfort of the light, but at what cost?
This, I think, was at the heart of the wisdom of our earliest church liturgists, those who centuries ago created this season of Advent as a time of fasting and reflection before the coming of the light.
Sundays in Advent often feature what are called apocalyptic texts. We heard one today: the sudden coming of the Son of Man whose arrival takes us by surprise and changes everything.
When we hear the word apocalypse, we often think “end of the world.” But the word actually means to reveal, to uncover. It’s a common mistake, to think that the sudden uncovering of something new is the end of the world. That transformation in the darkness means the destruction of everything we’ve ever known.
But maybe it’s just a seed deep in the soil cracking open.