Good Friday Evening, 1999
"From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon."
Elizabeth's husband had died a horrible, painful death after a long illness. And when he died, it was as if a light had gone out in her soul, so deep and dark was her grief. Why had a good man like that had to suffer so, she wondered. Her grief was made worse by her having been taken on as a project by a fundamentalist Christian church on the edge of town. The guy she had dated in high school had been "saved," transforming him into an insufferably pompous prig. Now he and his wife and all their new Christian friends were out to save her. Elizabeth hides from them when they come to call. While she longs to climb out of her grief, she doesn't want them with their grinning talk of Jesus. Elizabeth says of these Christians,
"They refuse to look on the dark side of things, and they want her to blink it away, too. If she can smile in the face of loss, grief, and death, so can they. They're like children in a fairy tale, singing songs, holding hands. Never mind the dark wood, the wolves and witches. Or birds that eat up the bread crumbs."(Mary Ward Brown, "A New Life," 1991, The Atlantic Monthly).
"They refuse to look on the dark side of things, and they want her to blink it away too," she says. But she would not, and in refusing to flee to quickly from the darkness, is eventually Elizabeth's redemption.
Lewis Mumford tells of looking down an abandoned well when a young boy, down into the darkness, and being startled by something slithering away from the light, down there in the murky depths. Mumford said the thing that most startled him was that there were creatures in the world who actually preferred to live in such darkness their whole lives.
We who gathered here to protest the crucifixion of Matthew Shepherd in Montana, or shook our heads over the dragging death of a black man in Texas, or the beating and incineration of the gay man in Alabama, why, what's a little darkness to us?
Strange. There's a lot of darkness in the Bible, more than in a church at eleven on Sunday morning. Friend Job, in utter despair, mentions darkness three dozen times in his howling lament. Darkness is like creation reversed. Remember, before God got busy with the world, "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep" (Genesis 1:2). As we noted a few Sundays past, Nicodemus comes to Jesus "by night" and can hardly understand a word Jesus says. The disciples are on the sea in a storm one night when they cry out to Jesus on the waves, "Don't you care that we are perishing?" And when Jesus' twelve best friends fled when the soldiers came to seize Jesus, "it was night."
I don't think that my church does well in the dark. We present the Christian faith as an exercise of reason, as a means of enlightenment for the illuminated. We are therefore more comfortable here at eleven in the morning, when the windows shine, and we can see where we're going, and all is smiling confidence in ourselves, oh yes, confident in God too.
But we shall not be redeemed until we can face the night. Women march to "Take Back the Night," but darkness is a threat to women in a world where there is much violence against them. Little children, old people, know enough of the dark not to go out much at night. So what are we doing here, and on a Friday night too?
Tonight we come to worship in the dark. Before we're done, we will do something that's seldom done in our artificially illuminated modern world. We will sit in darkness for what seems like the longest time. We shall savor the dark on this, the darkest night of the Christian year, the dark night that Jesus was forsaken by his own people as his disciples fled into the dark, that day when darkness covered the earth from noon until three and it was is if Creation got undone by the howling grief of God over what we had done to God's only Son.
Why do we worship in the dark? "The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable comfort," said C. S. Lewis, "but before it can be comfort, it begins in despair and it is no use to try to get to the comfort without going through the despair."
And that is why we sit in the dark, a dark as dark as the dark of the tomb. We are made by God to stare into the abyss, into the darkness, to admit to the dark places in our world where there is more chaos than creation, made by a church that is not often too truthful, made to be honest about those corners of our own souls where there is darkness too deep to mention.
Why do we worship in the dark? Throughout the Bible, it is light that is the quality of God. God is light "and in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5) says First John. Light is what God did when God began pushing back the dark chaos at Creation. So night ought to be the one place where one would not expect to find God, for has it not been said, God is light?
But if God is only God of the day, then God cannot be our God, for as we have said, there is much darkness in us. Tonight, as the body of Jesus lies in the tomb, and that prophet's voice that challenged the powers-that-be is at last silenced, it seems as if Creation has been reversed, as if chaos at last has its night of triumph, and we are plunged back into a darkness so vast and overwhelming that we shall never again see dawn. We have murdered God's own Son, our last best hope of light and life and now, it appears, God has left us to our own darkened devices and desires.
Did you not hear the words read here scarcely three months ago? "And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). The people who sat in darkness, us, upon those who sat in the region of death, us, light has dawned (Matthew 4:16). It is the peculiar nature of our faith to assert that, in entering our darkness, God is preparing to take back the night. Darkness shall not be the last word.
Let us sit in the dark. Let us tell one another the somber story of Jesus' last hours in the land of the living. Let us stare into the darkness and tell the truth of our shadowlands. Then let us gather again, morning after tomorrow, hopeful that by some stunning act of enlightenment, the words are trustworthy and true, that, "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).
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