To quote Indiana Jones: “Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?”
Moses in the Old Testament; Jesus in the Gospel. I hate snakes with that visceral, irrational hatred that some people feel about bug or spiders or, well, clergy…. So having Jesus compared to a snake not a helpful metaphor for me. But there they are. And now we’ve acknowledged them and can move on. Enough with the snakes.
This passage is the middle of Jesus’ explanation to Nicodemus, who has come to him under cover of night to ask questions. Nicodemus does this because he is a temple leader and doesn’t want to be seen talking with Jesus; but as Bishop Michael Curry declaimed in a brilliant sermon I heard last week in North Carolina, in the Gospel of John, when it is night, it does not mean that it is dark outside, it means that it is dark inside. It has nothing to do with the position of the sun, it’s the state of your soul. It’s about the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. So when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, it isn’t just about not being seen; it’s about his soul still being in darkness, still not comprehending the light that is right in front of him. And then when Nicodemus reappears in chapter 19 of John’s gospel, bringing myrrh and aloes with which to anoint Jesus’ body on the afternoon of Good Friday, it’s not about how it takes place during the hours of daylight; it’s about his soul having seen the light, and finally grasping the very truth that Jesus is proclaiming today.
Paul testifies to that truth today in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” This is the light: by grace you have been saved through faith. As the wife of a Lutheran, I could not ignore this verse—the center of Martin Luther’s understanding of theology and the role of grace and faith in our lives as opposed to works. And grace and darkness are linked, because it is grace that sends the light in when we have lost the ability to believe that there could be light. Luther knew that—he knew what darkness of the soul was.
I’ve certainly had some periods of myself where I found darkness to be suffocating. I know many of you have as well. Death, grief, violence, broken relationships, despair about where the world is going. I find the temptation when I am surrounded in darkness is to close my eyes and try to imagine that it’s not there. We can close our eyes on darkness—I don’t want to see the ugliness, the violence, the illness. I don’t want to have to feel the empathy, the compassion, the despair. St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul,” the crisis of faith that somehow combines psychological depression, physical illness, and divine abandonment. It can be overwhelming, and is impossible to work your way out of—just as impossible as it is to work our way to salvation. Have you ever tried to work at not being depressed? In my experience that’s futile. Depression doesn’t answer to reason or logic. It’s just dark. And trying hard to beat it doesn’t work. When the dark night of the soul finally gives way to dawn is when we open our eyes, acknowledge the darkness, and wait to see the light. If we open our eye, we see the darkness, and it can feel overwhelming. But we can also see the light when it comes. And the light always comes because we are children of light, and not of darkness.
And yet we are having a service here in 10 days called Tenebrae, Latin for “darkness”. And it is a dark service, both literally and figuratively. We begin fully lit, with 14 candles burning, and progressively the church gets darker as the lights are snuffed out as we meditate on psalms and scripture readings until it is completely dark except for the final candle, known as the Christ Candle. Now if the church is about light and not darkness, why do we do this? Well, because at the end of that service, the Christ candle is taken away, and there is total darkness. And then there is a loud noise—meant to represent the rolling away of the stone from the tomb. And then the candle comes back. Light returns. And you’d be surprised how much light a single candle can give when you’ve just been in total darkness.
We are called as Christians not to be afraid of the dark, and not to avoid going to dark places, as we’ll be doing at Tenebrae. Jesus meets Nicodemus in the dark; Jesus suffers his own dark night of the soul at Gethsemane and again on the cross, crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where there is pain and suffering and depression and no hope is precisely where we need to go as Christians. But we need to remember that we are not children of darkness. We are children of light. And it may just be a single flame that illumines that darkness but if Christ is present wherever we are present—and he is—then there is a light wherever we are. As the Gospel of John says of John the Baptist, he was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. We come to testify to the light as well. If you are in darkness right now, know that there is light. And not at the end of the tunnel but with you, now. In the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate—appropriate this week:
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
That is the faith of those who are in darkness. That Christ is with us, in us, surrounding us. And that God’s love is bound to us, even in the darkness.
But so how do we see that light of Christ with us? I’ve gone running a lot this week and so I’ve been listening to Pandora radio, which I have set to the “Indigo Girls” radio station because I always used to run to the Indigo Girls when I was in high school. It’s gotten me thinking about their repertoire, which has many wonderful spiritual themes, possibly because Emily Saliers is the daughter of Don Saliers, a Methodist minister and a professor at Emory University. She wrote a song called “Prince of Darkness” that Jeff and I are going to sing the chorus of in a moment. “My place is of the sun, and this place is of the dark” it begins, and finished, “By grace my sight grows stronger and I will not be a pawn for the prince of darkness any longer.” It is grace that improves our vision to see the light that is already there. The light that we find it hard to believe in. The light of Christ.
Listen to the full Indigo Girls song, Prince of Darkness, here.