When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,[a]
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Will you pray with me?
God, may these words that you have placed on my heart and share today bring Glory to you and good news to your people.
The Joy of Darkness
My family and I took a trip to get a Christmas tree this past week. Since this is a year missing a lot of the activities we usually do and the people we do them with, we’ve been trying to go All IN on the traditions that are safe for us to do. So rather than grabbing a cut tree locally, we piled in the car and drove to the closest national forest where we could harvest one with a permit. The outing was moderately successful - as much as we expect these days with three middle schoolers who, frankly, would rather be home on the couch with TikTok or YouTube than out on a family outing. But as we wove our way down the mountain, tree secured, it was the ride home where the magic of the day happened. The perpetual sibling harassment simmered down a notch. We listened to carols together. We laughed over the mishaps of the day. We were quiet, together, listening to the hum of the tires as we moved through space in the cocoon of our minivan. The gift of connection that we had hoped for happened because we rode home in the dark. The real joy of the trip happened in darkness.
In the northern hemisphere, the religious season of Advent we are celebrating matches up neatly with the winter solstice. As we approach Christmas, darkness falls earlier and earlier. This lack of daylight can be hard on us humans, and so we use therapy lights and full spectrum bulbs and at night, we drape our homes in light. The metaphors we often use in Advent focus on the return of the light, and this anticipation resonates with the way many of us feel. Each week we light one more advent candle, slowly approaching the final Christ candle, lit Christmas eve to proclaim Jesus’ arrival as the Light of the World. There is something comforting when you’re sitting in the dark, knowing that it won’t be dark forever. It’s a compelling and useful metaphor for the religious season of advent.
But I wonder if sometimes our metaphor of waiting on the light’s return implies that the opposite of light – darkness - must be something to avoid, something to suppress. Have we taken our need for light and turned Advent – or maybe even Christianity - into a binary spirituality of lightness and darkness? What if the darkness of advent is not something to wait out, but brings instead its own kind of joy, one that cannot be seen when focused on the light’s return.
This binary experience has happened to me with campfires. Campfires are beautiful and mesmerizing. They bring comfort and warmth and security. But the odd thing about campfires is that they turn the inky night that surrounds you into an ominous threat. Everything beyond the ring of light becomes pitch black, unseeable. The noises that come from that blackness seem terrifying.
But if you step outside the ring of light, or never light one at all, the night forest opens up to you like a blossom. You suddenly become a part of the forest, a part of the dark night. You can see and hear and feel things unavailable to you in the light of day. The stars begin to emerge, or perhaps you’ll see just how much the silvery shimmer of the moon lights up the night. The night is a completely different experience if you lean into it, if you allow the dark to simply be…dark. Rev. Howard Thurman, poet, theologian and civil rights activist, explored the joy of darkness in his 1965 book called “The Luminous Darkness.” Aren’t those words just perfect?
But Thurman’s book wasn’t about camping. It was a personal reflection about what segregation does to the human soul, segregation which Christians created and participated in. There are ways in which the theological concepts of our faith have been weaponized against people. Our faith history includes skewing the story we tell to equate all things good with light, which becomes lightness, which becomes whiteness. Our faith history includes constructing the opposite, of assigning all things bad to darkness, which becomes blackness, which becomes black people. Thurman’s writings worked to deconstruct the ways in which his blackness had been assigned a negative value, rebuilding instead a theology where his blackness was a gift. Thanks be to God.
Thank God, too, to Womanist theologians for the holy word about the joy of darkness that I share with you today. Womanist theologians are black women who, as they read and interpret our sacred texts, lean into their unique social lens as among the most marginalized in our sexist and racist culture. Their scholarship points us to the ways in which a theological rejection of darkness becomes too easily conflated with anti-blackness. There’s a wonderful advent devotional featuring womanist interpretations, found in the online magazine Justice Unbound, called Starry Black Night. In it, Rev Kerri Allen mentions her sister’s insistence on singing “I’m wishing for a Black Christmas.” While her sister is doing so lightheartedly, Rev. Allen gets the yearning underneath the joke. She goes on to say, “I want to reverse light and dark to reflect black women’s realities. Black women’s freedom will not come from white light. That is not the womanist story that will liberate the most people in the world.” And we know that Jesus’ impending arrival is about the liberation of all people.
So let us heed these womanists call. Let us put out the campfire from time to time and explore the joy of darkness. There are so many instances in our theology of God and goodness found in the dark. Darkness is a generative place of renewal and rest and dreaming, of tender embrace and creative germination. Like many writers, Barak Obama’s recent book was written longhand between the hours of 10pm and 2am when, he says, “I find that the world narrows, and that is good for my imagination.” In Genesis God begins God’s creation work every evening – God is creating the world in the darkness. Particularly poignant for us here in the pacific NW, throughout the book of Exodus God appears as a pillar of dark clouds. Jesus is born in the dark of night. Toward the end of his life, after praying through the night at Gethsemane, all four gospels identify the resurrection happening before the sun comes up. You can probably think of more examples, and I invite you to post them in the chat box. Darkness is as much of a gift in our faith as is the light.
Our scripture today says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” The time we are living through right now is so hard – it feels sometimes we are waiting on the restoration that came to Zion. This advent season offers us hope of what is to come, but let us not rush through what is now. These long nights offer us a time to dream. Like the seeds planted in sorrow in our scripture, which need a long dark cold winter to germinate, let us not rush through this holy season that holds its own gifts, its own shouts of joy, its own sheaves to reap.
As local UCC pastor and womanist Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown says, “As we wait and walk through advent together, let us wrestle with the myths and metaphors that work to keep us locked in whiteness and away from the gifts buried in the luminous darkness. Keep Awake.”
As you take your leave of this place may your mouth be filled with laughter, and your tongue with shouts of joy,
May you plant seeds in this season that need the germination of the dark,
May you seek and find joy in the darkness.
And may God’s loving presence make Themself known to you;
may you see and serve Christ in all those around you;
may the Holy Spirit stir her wild movings in your heart;
and may you walk knowing you are never alone. Go in Peace.