“From Darkness Toward Light”*
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Meditation for Blue Christmas Service
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (NRSV)
On NC Hwy 221, south of the tiny community of Linville Falls, is an interesting natural feature called Linville Caverns. Like so many other caves in our region, it has stalagmites, stalactites, and a creek running with clear, cold water. Trout live in the waters of the creek. Having lived in that dark place for untold generations through untold eons, the trout are born blind. With their useless eyes, they swim in darkness just as surely as they swim in the water itself.
Their “land of deep darkness” is a perpetual reality. Having never known anything else, they manage to move, feed, and procreate just fine without the aid of light. Indeed, should their eyes suddenly begin to work, they would probably become terrified and start swimming in frantically into each other, rocks, and the sandy bottom of the creek.
To sighted human beings, darkness is often a metaphor for loss. It means the absence of joy, purpose, and hope. It conjures up images of evil, suffering, punishment, or death. For the ancient Israelites, darkness referred to the experiences of defeat and exile. It referred to the very real death associated with being separated from home, family, and familiar traditions.
Many of the psalms of lament were written during exile. Psalm 137 is one such psalm of darkness. “By the rivers of Babylon,” sings the psalmist, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)
When Isaiah speaks of the “people who walked in darkness,” it is of these very Israelites in exile, people whose individual lives and whose corporate life shared the same relentless grief, the same longing for hope and wholeness, the same desire for a return to the light.
As Christmas approaches, the days get shorter and colder, and the nights longer and darker. During these days and nights, Christmas lights seem to grow on trees, houses, and fences. They are ubiquitous and bright, multi-colored and flashing. It’s as if they demand to be seen, and demand happiness. And for those of us who can’t summon happiness into our hearts or glorias into our throats, those lights create a bitter paradox: All that brightness only sends us into deeper darkness.
I have to think that the writer of Psalm 137 had to feel something similar when he wrote his lament. I imagine him looking at his harp and remembering how much joy it had brought him and others, and how much power music has to lift spirits and open hearts. But when he looked at his instrument, once a source of vibrant light, he saw and felt only heaviness and despair.
Here’s the thing though: There’s a difference between “people walk[ing] in darkness” and those blind-born trout in Linville Caverns. The difference is that the sightless trout have no memory of light, while the Israelites maintained clear memories of light and sight, of gratitude and hope. Memories of their holy belovedness. And those memories of light, memories that came to them through the ancient stories of Moses, Hannah, Ruth, David, and others, created tiny flickers of light that empowered their laments. I think that makes lamentation a gift because, at its heart, it’s an expression of one’s faith that a present, painful situation isn’t of God’s making. It’s a refusal to accept darkness as some kind of final, permanent state. Lamentation does take suffering seriously, and at the same time it declares that new light is coming because human beings are, and all of the Creation is, now and always, beloved by God. And it seems to me that darkness can have meaning because we have known and experienced light. And light—that is to say joy, peace, and hope—are God’s will for all of us.
John confirms this when he speaks of Jesus as the one through whom light itself came into being in the universe. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5)
The darkness is real. Too often darkness even becomes a way of life for some of us. And yet we know it is darkness because we have experienced the light. We remember the light. The message of Christmas is that no matter what darkness comes, no matter how long it lasts, it does not have the last word. Light—God’s Light—will prevail.
Friends, God has not given us useless eyes. In both our heads and our hearts, God has given us eyes made for opening to the light, welcoming the light, both the light of day and the Incarnate Light, the Christ, who is coming into the world.
*I prepared this meditation for our “Blue Christmas” service. A health issue prevented me from sharing it, but the pastor who filled in for me read it. A Blue Christmas service is designed to provide comfort for those for whom Christmas is a more difficult than joyous occasion. If that is true for you, may God’s peace be real to you, now or sometime soon. AH