The Gifts of Darkness

The other night my children were reminiscing about the ice storm of Christmas 2013. Appropriately enough, it happened on the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. During our Longest Night service, freezing rain began pinging on the sanctuary windows. By the time I was driving home, the wind was shrieking and branches were beginning to creak and groan under the weight of the ice. Suddenly, the night was lit by eerie green flashes and the streetlights went out. All over the Greater Toronto Area, thousands of people were plunged into cold and darkness.

Hydro crews worked through the night, but by morning there was still no light or heat. Burning thirty candles at once raised the ambient temperature of our living room to nine degrees Celsius—better than freezing—but we still shivered in our winter coats and wool blankets. Our menu consisted of crackers, raisins, and porridge cooked over the camp stove. Christmas Eve services were cancelled. At the church, the pipes froze and burst, flooding the sanctuary.

“I wish we could have another ice storm,” sighed my youngest daughter.
“Why?” I asked, incredulous. She stared at me, astonished that I would even ask such a silly question.
“Because it was so cozy being together,” she said.

Of course. Memories flooded back. Visiting our neighbours and warming ourselves for an hour by their fireplace. Drinking hot chocolate by candlelight. Sharing worship with our Anglican friends. Cuddling in the big bed and reading The Long Winter by flashlight. With no electronics to distract us, and no electricity to extend the day beyond its natural limits, we all fell asleep early and woke up refreshed, when our bodies were ready. In many ways the darkness had been an unexpected blessing.

But darkness rarely gets the credit it deserves.

I’ve been guilty of this myself. Like many people in the northern hemisphere, I spend the winter months craving sunlight. I complain about having to crawl out of a warm bed in what feels like the middle of the night. I struggle with dullness and lethargy if I miss my daily walk outside. This is not simply a physical phenomenon. Something ancient and deep in me longs for reassurance that the weakening sun will return, and that life and growth will come again.

Maybe this is why I have always loved Advent, a season that celebrates the victory of light over darkness. Through liturgy, hymns, readings, and rituals, we proclaim this triumphant message: God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.

But lately I have begun to feel that something is wrong with this picture.

For one thing, there are disturbing racist undertones to this glorification of light, and the association of darkness with ignorance or evil. Even if we argue that darkness is a simply a vivid metaphor for the painful and confusing parts of human experience, separating God from them implies that there are times and places where God is absent.

Furthermore, our scorn for the dark fails to acknowledge the richness of biblical metaphor, or the fullness of the Mystery that we call God.

Think about it.

What is the Kingdom of God like?  A handful of leaven in a batch of dough. A mustard seed that springs up to become a great tree. Unless a seed falls into the dark earth and dies, says Jesus, it remains just a seed. But if it dies it brings forth fruit. Jesus lives out this mystery, inviting us to follow him as he lets go of his own life and tumbles into the darkness of the tomb. There he becomes something new.

Darkness is where yeast works its silent magic. Darkness is where the seed breaks open. Darkness is where new life springs up.

As I look at my own life more closely, I find myself noticing the gifts of darkness.

Pizza dough rising in a warm corner of the kitchen. A birthday cake baking in the oven. My daughters poring over seed catalogues, wondering what we should plant this spring. A friend sharing her hopes for a baby, her hands resting protectively over her growing belly.

On our winter walks my children and I look for what is hidden: clusters of drowsy lady-bugs; frogs dozing under the pond ice; squirrels snoozing in their nests; sleeping bulbs gathering strength beneath the frozen soil.

As for me, when I have a headache, or a heartache, it is to the darkness that I turn. Curled up under my quilt like a hibernating animal, I trust the darkness to heal and restore me.

Without darkness there can be no rest, no growth, no birth, no healing, no becoming.

Observing that Jesus was most likely born in a cave, artist Jan Richardson imagines the season of Advent as a cave into which we retreat to meet the Christ child. A cave is a recess, a place set back from the world outside. Dark and quiet, it is a place of rest and transformation, where living creatures sleep and dream. (Jan Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, pp. 3, 14).

During Advent we are invited to curl up in the cave and keep company with God in the dark. As we wait, we trust that God is at work, slowly, mysteriously, purposefully—like yeast in dough, like a seed in soil, like a baby getting ready to be born.

I still love my Advent wreath. In the weeks to come I will light the candles and give thanks for the gifts of warmth, illumination, insight, and energy. The metaphor of God as light will always resonate with me. But this year I will also be looking for ways to celebrate God as darkness. Maybe I will paint a picture, create a ritual, or write a song.

Because the dark deserves more praise than it gets—especially during this holy season.

Laura Alary has recently published Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and ChristmasThis richly illustrated book is an invitation for children (and adults) to look back, look around, and look ahead for the many ways God comes to us. It reassures children of the presence of God in all times and places, and invites them to become part of the holy work of making Christ present in the world.

Order Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas directly from the publisher, or from amazon.!SEADEV

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