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Dec 24, 2022

Fear of the Dark

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: December 2022


Today's Sermon


"Fear of the Dark"


            I slept with the light on for a long time as a child.  Having gotten glasses at a young age, not only would I go to bed with the light on, I would sleep with my glasses on as well, those poor bent frames.  I don’t recall being expressly afraid of any one thing, but clearly something about not being able to see unsettled me. 

            The unknown can be frightening.  It’s not the dark per se, and we must be careful about dark/bad light/good metaphors; it’s what darkness as a metaphor represents:  the hidden, the unknown.  We see the potential for harm lurking in shadows.  The nighttime is used in Scripture as a metaphor for danger or hardship, drawing upon images such as the soldier on night watch, the morning light the only salvation.  The struggle of our spiritual lives is similarly described.  The 16thcentury St. John of the Cross wrote of what’s known as “the dark night of the soul,” now synonymous with doubt, even spiritual crisis. 

            The past few years have felt a little like moving through darkness. Perhaps it hasn’t for you—I shouldn’t assume—and if it hasn’t, I intend to inflict no guilt; dwell in gratitude in the house of good fortune.  My sense, though, is that many may have felt there is little room in that inn.  The night has felt long and they have felt left out in the cold with burdens long-carried.  Some are burdened still with trepidation over what’s looming for them or for us and our shared world.  My prayer is that for these the glow of this day and night feels all the cozier, a respite from the harsh walk, a reorientation, a glimpse of the divine peaking in. 

            If you wonder why it feels so hard sometimes, it’s because it is; it is in fact hard.  Some of us have been taught that our struggles are a result of our failings, an aberration rather than an integral part of life, particularly a part of growth.  Struggle is nor more unnatural than is the night.  Somehow, we’ve been taught not to give voice to the struggle, to the hard things. Are we really to believe that the manger scene was the culmination of an easy journey or a gentle waypoint?  Do we think Mary birthed Jesus without contractions? Have we forgotten it’s called labor? Sometimes pain is a sign that something is trying to emerge.  I am not saying it is deserved or fair, only that it may tell us something about what needs to happen.  It will cry louder until we listen.  As the birth metaphor indicates, some, of course, are better positioned to understand this than others.  Franciscan Richard Rohr observes that in cultures where there are the painful rites of passages such rituals are almost always reserved for the men, not because they are the only ones who could endure them, but because they need appreciate that transformation involves a degree of trial if not suffering.  Those who can give birth, whether they do or not, don’t need to be taught that the apparatus for new life is bound up with struggle, pain, blood. 

            This is why Mary, mother Mary, speaks to so many, though I wonder if the men who have written of her in our tradition may have missed or dismissed the struggle she must have felt, maybe fearing that showing her pain would make her less holy.  We have recorded largely her celebratory words, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “who has done good things for me” (Lk. 1:46, 49).  Poet Leila Chatti, shares a very different, though I would argue still faithful, portrait of Mary.  Chatti is a Tunisian American poet.  She wrote this about her own experience of faith: 

“Religion has always been a part of my life, though my relationship with my faith has shifted and complicated over time,” Chatti says. “I was raised Muslim by my father, but my mother’s family is deeply Catholic. What most interested me about Catholicism, even as a young child, was Mary. Mary, of course, also appears in the Qur’an; she was chosen by God ‘above all other women.’ Mary, I understood, was the ideal woman. When I became sick in my early twenties with what was thought to be a form of uterine cancer, I turned, as many ill people do, to my faith for answers; I felt at once desperate for God’s help and betrayed by his silence. I formed then a deep sense of kinship with Mary, who had been young and female and also had little say in what happened to her body, but this developed alongside feelings of envy and shame. If the ideal woman was deemed so because of her miraculous pregnancy, what did that make me, who would likely be barren? These complex feelings led to this poem.”[1] 

The poem she refers to begins with a quote from the Qur’an.  

“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
—Mary giving birth, The Holy Qur’an

Truth be told, I like Mary a little better
when I imagine her like this, crouched
and cursing, a boy-God pushing on
her cervix (I like remembering
she had a cervix, her body ordinary
and so like mine), girl-sweat lacing
rivulets like veins in the sand,
her small hands on her knees
not doves but hands, gripping,
a palm pressed to her spine, fronds
whispering like voyeurs overhead—
(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure
in knowing you were not all
holy, that ache could undo you
like a knot)—and, suffering,
I admire this girl who cared
for a moment not about God
or His plans but her own
distinct life, this fiercer Mary who’d disappear
if it saved her, who’d howl to Hell
with salvation if it meant this pain,
the blessed adolescent who squatted
indignant in a desert, bearing His child
like a secret she never wanted to hear.[2]

            Some will scoff at this Mary.  How could she not want to bear what God has given her?  But others will say, if they’re empowered to be honest, “Now that’s a Mary to whom I can relate.  I have at times felt the same way the lot I’ve been given in life. I can relate to being unsure I can carry this.  I can relate to this just as I can to the feelings of abandonment Jesus felt because he cried out from the cross, which did make the record.”  Just yesterday I was still contemplating making this point in the sermon while watching a movie called The Star, a cartoon retelling of the biblical birth stories of Jesus.  In it, along the journey, Mary turns to Joseph and says with a degree of trembling, “Just because God has a plan doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy, and that scares me.” 

            Joseph offers a refreshing response, “Hey, I’m scared too, but I’m here and I’m yours…” 

            Yes.  This is what faith looks like too, for it’s all the more powerful, then, that Mary goes into the night and gives birth to the child of light.  What courage.  I was reminded this week watching the news what a year it has been for courageous young women.  Mary brings Christ into the world, Christ who faces the greatest of darkness and yet emerges into an even greater light.  What Mary and Jesus show us is not only what they can do with God’s help, but what we can too.  We can be honest about what is scary or uncertain and we can move through it with a degree of trust. 

            Historian of Christianity Diana Butler Bass writes of Advent, the holy season that readies us for Christmas:

Advent recognizes
a profound spiritual truth:
that we need not fear the dark.
Instead, wait there.

Under that blue cope of heaven,
alert for the signs of dawn.

For you cannot rush the night.

But you can light some candles.
Sing some songs.
Recite poetry.
Say prayers.[3]

            We need not fear the dark.  If there is a truth in Christianity it is that.  Not that the darkness does not exist, nor that there aren’t things to fear, but the darkness is not one of them.  Spiritual teacher Patricia Pearce in her “WE Awakening” podcast speaks “in praise of darkness.”[4]The darkness is a place of possibility, of mystery, of slowing down and sinking in.  It’s womb time, pregnant with what can be even if we cannot totally predict what will come.  

            It's we who have layered negativity on the darkness.  Did you know, that if you actually read the poem that came to be known as “The Dark Night of the Soul” you’ll see that St. John of the Cross is not writing of spiritual crisis or even of doubt.  That’s what I expected to find, having heard the phrase, but never taken the time to read the original poem.  What St. John of the Cross describes is merely the soul’s journey of finding union with God, which happens as much in the darkness, the time of mystery, as it does the clear definition found in the light.  The Dark Night of the soul is not a state of separation from God.  It is the path to God. 

            We need not fear the dark.  We can meet it as God did, with flesh and blood, bringing our full humanity and divine spark to bear on the world we face.  That’s what Jesus did.  Jesus does not deny what is ailing; he brings healing to it.  Jesus doesn’t stay quiet, he speaks, you could say poetically, of how things could be different.  Jesus weeps. Jesus prays.  And, when the time comes, he puts his soft flesh against hardwood and while dragged into the harshest of nights, to the surprise of all, he emerges into a greater morning than we could have ever imagined.

            You can’t rush the night and maybe we shouldn’t try.  What we can do, what we’re here to do today is light some candles, recite poetry, sing some songs, say prayers.  Tonight, any night, you can leave the light on.  Sleep with your glasses on if it helps.  It might do a number on your frames, but at least you will be ready to see what the new day births when the dawn finally breaks, and friends, it is breaking.  Merry Christmas.