This sermon came out of my musings on a sermon by Rev. Wil Gafney called “Embracing the Light and the Darkness in the Age of Black Lives Matter.” (www.wilgafney.com) Light and Darkness. This is something that I have been thinking about for years—what do we do with all the images of light vs. darkness in Scripture, especially in the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season? We have a star in the sky, we have Jesus the light of the world, we have the images of John 1 with light coming into the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it. And roll that all up into the festivals of lights that span all the religions at this time of year—for we in the northern hemisphere do experience more darkness now than we did in June. We crave for the sun to be out. We dream of being nearer the equator with brighter, longer, warmer days. We hungrily watch the sunrise and sunset tables urging the minutes of daylight to lengthen quicker. We reach for the flashlight to light our way, to illumine dusty corners, and to scare away things we are afraid of. Light and darkness is so basic to how we view human life.
And yet, we also know that the images of light and darkness have, (mostly in the American environment—which we then exported to the world) been linked, overtly and even subconsciously to whiteness and blackness. And to make matters even worse, we have added the layer of good and evil as well. So, there are these trinities: of light/good/white and darkness/evil/black. This is not right. What do we do about it?
As I have wrestled over the years with this question, one possibility is to tamp down the number of times I allow goodness to be connected to “light.” (This is difficult because the word “light” is wired into our brains as a lighter color than darkness, almost by default). I have struggled because I don’t want to give up the image of light in the darkness—I yearn for light, for me it is a powerful image—how on Christmas night, when we light just one candle, and how much more if there are more candles, how that dispels the darkness. It is how I am created—I am more easily depressed in the darker months of the year.
But as I read Rev. Wil’s sermon I remembered other commentators who talk of the danger of creating a binary world—one where you are either good or evil, you are either of the light or the darkness, dare we say, you are white or you are black. We know rationally that there is very little in life that is at one pole or the other. Part of becoming an adult, in my humble opinion, is recognizing how much grey there is—how much we live between the poles, how each of us contains fragments of good and (I’ll say) bad, light and darkness within us. Trying to see us as a combination of both is another way in which I have tried to negotiate the problem of light and darkness, at least in terms of people.
I also remembered, early in my seminary days, the work I tried to do, as I was steeped in the power of images, the images we use in preaching, the images we have embedded into our brains, the images most especially of God. Because of my reading, because of my conversations with my colleagues and professors, I found myself examining my image of God—and deciding that it wasn’t enough to stop using the masculine pronoun for God—and moving to the gender neutral “God/God’s.” (Which I have to admit I have slid backwards in this regard). I knew that didn’t erase the years of hearing "he" when talking about God or “seeing” those blond-haired, blue-eyed, white skinned Jesus in all my Sunday School material. And so I deliberately began to picture God, as a Black Woman, or as a man who was Disabled, or as someone totally unlike me.
As I have thought more about this “light/darkness” dilemma over the years, I have also realized that we need to stop thinking that God is only of the light. Now I know that someone just fell out of their chair. Here is my thinking. If we want to shatter the unacceptable correlation between black and dark and (in its worst iteration) evil—then we have to pry that connection apart. How do we do that? Of course, we claim “black is beautiful,” and we march because “black lives matter.” But I have a sneaking suspicion that until we break the duality of light and darkness having such a close alignment with good and evil, we will not be able to rid our minds and our world of the stain of racist thoughts. In other words, until God is a God of Darkness as well as a God of Light, our efforts may not be as powerful as we would like.
And this is where our friend who wrote the gospel of John did us no favors. For the Johannine Biblical writings (the Gospel according to John, the Epistles of John, and the Revelation to John) are full of this light equals good and darkness equals evil imagery. Take the verse I chose as our monthly invitation to worship from John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
This can be a hopeful phrase, because if we equate light with good and darkness with evil, we want to believe that good will triumph in the end. We want to believe that the forces of meanness and greed and cruelty and hate may rule for a moment, but kindness and generosity and acceptance and love will win out. That is the story we tell ourselves in our sagas—like Harry Potter, and Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings, and the many worlds and superheroes of Marvel like Black Panther.
And actually, I find some hope in the fact that at least our visual storytellers realize that we have to have superheroes of all stripes. In fact, as I have been dipping back into the Star Wars series by watching the Mandalorian, I was struck by the fact that the bad soldiers (those aligning themselves with authoritarian rule) appeared in both black and white armor—and that those fighting for good, for freedom from that rule, included black and grey cloaked jedi, as well as fighters dressed in dark armor.
I don’t want to let go of John’s powerful image of light. But I think we need to always pair it in our minds with the beginning of the Bible, with the creation story. Not the part where God says, “let there be light.” But before that. Before, when there was no heaven, no earth, there was just darkness over the face of the deep, and God was in the darkness, God was the darkness.
God was the darkness. That’s what I want us to ponder in this Epiphanytide. Yes, God wanted light. Yes, Jesus, in John’s Revelation, is seen appearing to us as “His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow” (although remember that his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace). Yes, Jesus is the light of world, and we are called to be a light and put our light on a lampstand so all can see.
But that is only one side of the story. Because the darkness of the beginning in Genesis held the soup of possibility. God is in that. Without that darkness nothing would have been made that was made. Sometimes we need to stop seeing light, or seeing at all, to finally pay attention to God. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus. God blinded him—took away any light, so Saul could become Paul in the darkness. And once Paul had been blessed with darkness, he would never be the same.
Or have we ever considered that Jesus is born, (as many babies are), at night—not in the light of day. It is only because of night that we can see the Star of Bethlehem as brightly. It is only in night that the business of the world, the hustle and bustle of daily living, is overtaken by the business of rest, sleep, birth.
As the great author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman penned:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
(Thurman, “The Work of Christmas Has Begun”)
I was struck by Rev. Wil’s words “Race is always in the room for us. But it wasn’t for John, Jesus and their world. Identity mattered, whether you were Greek or Jew, slave or free, woman or man, but not the brown of your skin—and most skin was brown in Israel then, even Roman legions were largely black and brown having been filled with conscripts from Africa and Asia.”
She continues, “The mystic Howard Thurman taught us that somewhere between the light and the darkness, between the shadow and glory, there is a space that he called the luminous darkness, others have called it radiant blackness. Think of the night sky spangled with stars or the sheen on black silk or satin, or the glow of beautiful ebony skin. In the age of Black Lives Matter I invite you to take another look at the light and the darkness and see them on their own terms.” (www.wilgafney.com, Dec. 27, 2015)
What if there weren’t a cosmic war of light and darkness? What if the light shining in the darkness could celebrate both light and darkness—with each showing the beauty of the other? What if we could retrain our brains to believe God’s darkness is not something to be feared? That also is the work of Christmas. In fact, it may be the most difficult and yet the most important and lasting work we can ever do. To rewire our brains. To open up our imagery. To expand our vision of God and of ourselves. And in doing so, along with actions in our lives and our world, to make 2021 a year that moves us closer to having a more perfect union, and a more beloved community.
None of this is easy. The grooves of light/white/good and dark/black/evil are deeply etched into the fiber of our society, and our collective unconscious. It will take more than a few movies, a few marches, a few hours of wrestling with our own brain images to change. But we are not alone. We have each other. And we have that Spirit, the one that lived in the darkness, hovered and glided and soared in the darkness, got filled up with darkness (that beautiful collection of all that is, and all that can be) and the one who continues to grace our world, urging us to join in the movement, join in the creation, join in the celebration of life.
I am glad that our inspirational text, the Bible, doesn’t just have John 1 as the birth story. It is glorious in its cosmic nature. But Christmas is not just the macro story—it is also the story of God coming to be in our tangible, micro lives—the shepherds, the kings, the manger, a baby. The beauty of it all, the headiness of John, the earthiness of Luke, the global stretch of Matthew. Shouldn’t it encompass the light AND the darkness. And since there have been so many centuries of us focusing on the “light”—maybe now is the time to uplift “darkness.” The darkness that is at the root of creativity, the darkness that has nothing to do with all that is not of God.
Darkness, God’s Darkness, in a world where light and darkness dance together.
May 2021 be such a time.