As we begin Advent, I’m reflecting on the dichotomy of darkness and light. I fear all too often we understand this as darkness versus light, and even more dangerously we liken darkness to evil. Jesus is the Light and, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5.) But as much as I love the poetry of the first chapter of John’s gospel, I think we do ourselves a disservice by dismissing the holy power of the night.
Humans are diurnal creatures with natural inclination towards light. We can see better during the day, and our natural rhythms are inclined towards activity during the daylight and rest at night. This is never more apparent to me that when I go camping. In my daily life, I’m not afraid of the dark, but removed from the external sources from lamps, streetlights, and screens, I find my anxiety rising as the sun goes down. It’s not that I’m scared, but I am more nervous, more aware.
And yet, the darkness reveals so much glory: the waxing and waning glow of the moon, distant suns and planets spangling the sky, the cloudy blanket of stars and nebulas we call “The Milky Way.”
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8: 3-4)
The darkness helps us find our place in the universe – the great mystery of God. It is a place of dreaming, for seeing beyond this world, for drawing close to holy flame.
Rainer Maria Rilke – a German-language poet and mystic – wrote a series of poetry books now called “The Book of Hours: Love Letters to God.” In a 2005 translation from Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, he likens darkness to God:
You, darkness, of whom I am born —
I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.
But the darkness embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations — just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
As we in the northern hemisphere move ever closer to our longest night (December 21), we do well to embrace the glory of the night – if for not other reason than we could all really use the rest! But God just as active and powerful in the darkness as in the day. God is ever at work blessing our evenings with a blanket of darkness to reveal, to conceal, to heal. So when the sun goes down, light the candles, then take them outside to welcome the glory of the night.