Though we are highly sensitive to gender inclusive language, we are often rather insensitive to our black/white and dark/light language.
This was brought up at a recent WICC Council meeting by the chair of our Justice and Peace Committee. After having spent some time reflecting on this issue, it became fairly evident that she was correct. There are many words in our language that connote ‘black’ with negative images – i.e. black-listed, black-hearted, and black-balled. These are fairly easy to identify and many of us have already tried to excise them from our vocabulary. However, the use of light/dark imagery is a little more difficult.
It is hard to escape the vivid image of ‘light’ as clarity of vision – whether it is literal vision or spiritual/emotional/psychological vision. Darkness, conversely, is equated with lack of clarity — or even ignorance. Within the context of theological language, God or Christ is spoken of as the ‘light of the world’ (John 1:9). Darkness is thus equated with sinfulness; sin being the absence of God – the absence of light. This symbolism is embedded deep within our consciousness and our language. But, using that very image itself, in this article, and indeed, in this edition of Making Waves, we invite you to look at darkness in a new light.
We have inherited, as beneficiaries of those great Greek philosophers, a rather dualistic view of the world. We tend to see things in pairs, usually in absolute opposing pairs: good/bad; right/wrong; soft/hard; light/dark. But we know that those are rather simplistic approaches. The world does not really fall neatly into such nice little categories. Instead, the world is full of gradations – those areas between absolutes – that area where most of us live out our lives.
So let us look anew at that pair – dark/light – and take a more holistic approach to both. Briefly, we can readily identify some of the negative images of light. Light can leave us blinded by its intensity. Light can make us feel vulnerable and naked – striped of the protections in which we wrap ourselves. Light can burn. Well so too, dark can have some very positive aspects. We need look no further than our scriptures to find positive depictions of darkness. For the purposes of this discussion (and as suggestions for possible Bible Study) I would group such depictions into the following categories:
- Darkness as a creation of God
- Darkness as a creative/transformative force
- Darkness as a place of protection/deliverance
- Darkness as a place we encounter God
I. Darkness as a creation of God
Let us begin with what is arguably the most compelling reason to see the good in darkness. For darkness, as everything, is a creation of God. Let us not forget that echoing reprise throughout the creation narrative whenever the Creator paused to reflect on creation – “And God saw that it was good”.
Bible Study Suggestions:
A. Read 2 Samuel 22:10-12, Isaiah 45:3, Amos 5:8, Psalm 104:19-20 What do these passages from the Old Testament say about the source of darkness?
B. If God looked at creation and saw that it was good, what must we conclude about darkness?
C. What were the purposes, the ‘good’, for which darkness was created?
II. Darkness as a creative/transformative force
As with many of our images, we borrow from the natural world. We know that photosynthesis is essential to plant growth, but we often forget that most plants need darkness to germinate. And of course why not… according to our creation narrative, the Creator after all, started creation in darkness: “ In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)
We too, the children of that Creator, are formed in darkness… the darkness of the womb:
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
But it is not only new life that is created within darkness – but old lives can be transformed and re-created. Think of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus about rebirth. The conversion of Saul into Paul.
Bible Study Suggestions:
A. Read the passage above, as well as Isaiah 49:5, Job 31:15. What other characteristics do we attribute to the womb, other than darkness? How do you feel as women to have this dark creative ‘place’ within? Is it possible that this is one of the ways we are created in Our Creator’s image – in our ability to create?
B. Review Acts 9:7-9. Why was it necessary for Saul to be sightless in order to be transformed? What is the significance of this ‘darkness’ lasting three days?
C. What common themes can you trace from the Old Testament images of the womb, through Jesus’ teachings on re-birth (John 3) , through the Easter Event and finally to Paul’s conversion? Have you ever experienced a transforming ‘darkness’?
III. Darkness as a place of protection/deliverance
We have very mixed reactions to the image of darkness as a form of cover. Because darkness is a great equalizer; it provides cover not only for us but also for those who may harm us. It is a recognition of this very fact, that darkness and more specifically night, is the subject of reclamation in the ‘Take Back the Night” movement. This movement, which began in England in the 1970s, has spread throughout the world. It is usually an night-time march or rally, organized within communities which want to unite women, men and children in a stand against violence reclaiming the night as a safe place for us all:
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
and relies upon his God?
Many instances of deliverance have taken place under the protective cover of night. The great Exodus of the Children of Israel, David’s escape from the murderous Saul (1 Sam. 19:10), Joseph escaping with his wife Mary and the new born Jesus to Egypt (Matt 2:14), and numerous instances of miraculous deliverance of the Apostles in Acts from chains, prisons and certain death.
Bible Study Suggestions:
- Read Psalm 18:11 Psalm 139:11-12 and Isaiah 49:2. What are the protective qualities of darkness? How is it that darkness is described as an ‘equalizer’? We may need light to see but does God?
- Re-examine the story of the Exodus. How are images of darkness used on the night of deliverance? How is God’s presence with the newly freed Israelites manifest day and night? How does the image of darkness relate to the ‘wilderness’ wandering? How is this story remembered today (see Exodus 12:1-24, 42)?
- Review the various night deliverances in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Some by friends (Acts 17:10), some by foes (Acts 23:31), and some by divine agents (Acts 5:19; Acts 12:6). Do you see within these stories God’s providence acted out under the cover of darkness? Why would an omnipotent God choose the cover of night to act?
IV. Darkness as a place we encounter God
God has created the darkness as a protective place where we may grow and be transformed. It is within this very darkness that, if we open ourselves in faith, we may encounter God: “The Lord has said that he would reside in thick darkness.” (2 Chron. 6:1)
Numerous people in the scriptures encountered God in the darkness of night dreams and visions – Abimelech (Gen 20:3), Isaac (Gen. 26:24), Laban (Gen. 31:24), Jacob (Gen 46:2), Gideon (Judges 7:9), Samuel (1 Sam. 15:16). It was the interpretation of dreams that saved Joseph (Gen. 40:5) and a dream by which Solomon was granted the gift of Wisdom (1 Kings 3: 5; 2 Chron. 1:7). Many of the prophets received their visions at night (Dan. 2: 19; 7:2; Zech 1:8). All of these night-time visitations represent moments when the divine and humanity interacted.
And it is precisely that interaction of the Divine and humanity that is the basis of our faith. How many of the most significant encounters with God occurred during the dark? Moses and the wandering Children of Israel received the Law in darkness (Ex. 20:21; Deut 5:22). Joseph was informed of Mary’s pregnancy at night (Matt 1:20) and of course, as we know from the beloved nativity verses, the announcement of the birth of Jesus was proclaimed to shepherds ‘watching their flock by night.” The world encountered the Incarnate One at night!
Jesus’ own ministry had significant moments during the night. It was often at night that Jesus would seek the solace of lone prayer (Luke 6:12). Night was also the time of a significant expression of his divinity – walking across the water (John 6:16-20, Mark 6:47). Nicodemus encountered God – as he approached Jesus under the cover of night (John 3: 1-2). And Mary encountered the Risen Christ in the still dark hours of the early morning (John 20:1). And we still encounter God in our world in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table or Eucharist, a Sacrament instituted by Jesus during the evening (Matt 26:20; Mark 14:17; John 13:30).
Bible Study Suggestions:
- Read Psalm 18:9-11, Psalm 97:1-2. With so much biblical language associating God’s presence with light should we be surprised to encounter God in darkness?
- Read Psalm 88: 1-2 and the stories of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden (John 13: 31-17:25 and Matt 26:36-46). Why is it that prayer is often associated with night and darkness? Is it that we are most vulnerable? And as we are at our most vulnerable God seems closest? And is it at our most vulnerable that we are most open to God’s transforming grace?
- Read some of the stories of dreams and visions mentioned above. Why is it that God would use dreams and night-time as a vehicle for communication with humanity? Is it still possible that God is communicating with us through dreams?
It is our hope, that through this edition of Making Waves, through the Bible studies, articles and liturgies provided here, that you may look anew at night and darkness. That you may see them for what they are – integral aspects of God’s creation. Necessary aspects for our health and development as, within their embrace, we are renewed and transformed. But most of all they represent that sacred place where we may fully encounter ourselves – our fears and our dreams – and where we may encounter our God. Good night, God bless.
Article originally published in Riding the Waves in a past edition.