Reflection: Resting in the Dark

November 7, 2021

Rather than a full sermon today, I just want to throw out a few musings about this time of the year – both on the church calendar and in the rhythm of our lives.

The first is that this morning – or late last night – we “Fell Back” with our clocks into the season of cold and starlight.  We left behind evening walks in the late sunshine and, if we are fortunate, we welcomed nights curled up by the fire or the heater with a favourite book or program.  In rural areas, we said good-bye to the season of harvest and heavy labour and hello to the time of recuperation, repairs and fallow fields.  For rural and urban people alike in previous centuries, the lack of light at night meant humans were not forced to work late into the night, because it was too dark to see.  With the advent of electricity, the nights became safer for many, but it also meant workers faced longer days and shorter nights, and found little relief from the constant demands of their jobs or their vocations.   For people then and now who found themselves outdoors in the night the darkness was and is at times frightening and threatening – so light is an enduring a primary image for safety and security, and for the holiness of God.  Yet without the darkness, we cannot see the stars or the northern lights, and darkness aids our rest.  In this season of darkness, perhaps we can give ourselves permission to regain the rest that has been taken from us – and to experience the beauty of the dark.

The second thought is that this is a week to honour those who gave their lives in the service of the lives of others – to safeguard their comrades, to protect their families, to rescue others from oppression.  These people can be found on all sides of a conflict. We know this is true because we know that the people who make the policies that produce oppressive situations and send our people to war are rarely those on the front line.  While there are always some true believers fighting and dying for a cause which may or may not be a just one, the experience of war is a shared one at the level of the average soldier, and the heaviest price is generally paid by those who have the least say in whether or not they will go to war in the first place. When my German grandfather proposed to my grandmother, he said he did so before going off to war because “then he would know what he was fighting for – his family”.  He wasn’t fighting for National Socialism or the Third Reich, at least in his own mind. He was fighting for his family, as were my British great uncles who died in WW II, and the many soldiers of the First and Second World Wars.  Those who fought in the Korean conflict, those who protected others in peacekeeping missions, those who served in Afghanistan, did so for a multitude of reasons – but most of all, because they felt it was the right thing to do – that there were people who shared a dream of hope and freedom and it was their duty to help them attain it.  We honour their sacrifice, and on this day we pray that when their lives ended, they fell back into the gentle darkness of rest with God.  We remember them, with sorrow, and with thanks.  “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; they will rest from their labours, and their deeds follow them.”

The third thought is about how we generally associate God with light.  As I mentioned earlier it’s not surprising, given the terrors that could await in the night of an ancient land: raiders, treacherous landscapes, wild animals of all description.  Yet there is also a Christian tradition that invites us to contemplate the darkness of God: the mystery, the unknowing, the peacefulness, the quiet, the velvet softness of a calm and beautiful night.

When we talked about what it means to be a Jesus-follower last week, many expressed their difficulty making sense of God.  There is a Christian path that invites us to lean into that difficulty, called the via negativa – the negative way.  In classical philosophy it means that because God is transcendent, beyond all knowledge and description, we can only catch glimpses of who God is by understanding what God is NOT.  For example, as adults we realize that God is not a heavenly version of Santa Claus who grant us our wishes if we are good, nor is YHWH a thundering storm god like Zeus ready to punish at a hint of wrong-doing.  To say who God is, is much harder.  So the Via Negativa becomes the path of the mystic, which invites us to simply be still and rest in the unknowing – to take a break from trying to grasp God with our minds and our reason, but instead open ourselves to the possibility that God will be experienced in the lack of words, at the end of reason and logic, in the blessedness of silence and the mysterious dark.

The Via Negativa also takes us to those places in our lives and our world where there is grief, despair, suffering, deep disquiet and doubt.  The via negativa invites us into those spaces, for it is there, our faith tells us, that Jesus lives – not on the path of what is sensible and successful, but on the path that seems foolish and accepts the reality of pain as something that simply IS – not to be cherished or romanticized, but to be lived through when it comes, as it inevitably will. Even our communion liturgy re-enacts the supper when Jesus spoke of betrayal and death, of emptying himself for the sake of those he loved, as we heard in Mark’s Gospel.  Theologian Matthew Fox calls silence “a kind of darkness” Darkness, Depth and Silence – Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox.  He also reminds us that as silence is needed to distinguish one sound from another, so darkness is needed to see light more clearly. Apparently 97% of the universe is “dark matter” or “dark energy”.  And there, in the darkness, God dwells, just as in the light.

I hope to explore the thought of Matthew Fox and others like him with you in the New Year. Until then, I pray this this season of darkness will bring your rest and help you draw closer to the One who is Holy Mystery and Wholly Love. “Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God” sings a song in our hymnbook (VU).  May you experience God in the darkness and in the light.  Amen.

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