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18 January 2015

Darkness: Is It All Bad?

When I was an adolescent, I participated in a church music workshop held at the Katherinenkirche, one of Hamburg's old churches. Always eager to learn a new song, I was intrigued because we were taught new chants from Taizé, a community in Southern France that I had visited with our youth group. The chants of Taizé are always short and memorable, and they are meant to be sung over and over, so that a state of meditation is reached.

One of the chants we learned that day was this one, based on two verses from Psalm 139:

La ténèbre n'est point ténèbre devant toi:
la nuit comme le jour est lumière.
(Our darkness is never darkness in your sight:
The deepest night is clear as the daylight.)

Yes, I'd heard these lines from the psalm before, but they took on a life of their own as I was singing them over and over. As I was singing, I was meditating on the wisdom of Psalm 139 in a way I never had before.

Then I said to myself, "Oh, he even sees me in the dark! / At night I'm immersed in the light!"

It's a fact: darkness isn't dark to you / night and day, darkness and light, they're all the same to you. (Psalm 139, Verses 11-12, Message Translation)

What our English translations render as "darkness" is the Hebrew word חוֹשֶׁך (kho-shek'), which can mean the dark or darkness, but also, more figuratively, misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, and wickedness.

The same word kho-shek' is used in the first few lines of the Bible:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen 1:2)

Misery, destruction, ignorance, sorrow and death ... these meanings of חוֹשֶׁך are not exactly cheerful.  So ... is darkness all bad? Our psalm doesn't seem to bear that out; in fact, it belongs to just a handful of texts that don't portray darkness as evil and scary, but as neutral or even positive.

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and well-known preacher, released a new book last year, entitled "Learning to Walk in The Dark". The point of her book is, very simplified, that we Christians have always badmouthed and vilified darkness, and that unfortunately we have found plenty of backing in Scripture.

Rev. Brown Taylor says this attitude has alienated many people from church and faith, people like herself, who cannot follow a "solar spirituality" (in which church folk always "walk in the light of God" and address darkness only to scold other people), but prefer what she calls a "lunar spirituality" (in which people's experience of the light of God waxes and vanes just like the moon).

She goes on to say that the people who have gone through hard times often find it hard that the churches they attend have little tolerance for anyone who doesn't go along with the "program" of relentless light. She suggests that churches rethink this approach. In an interview regarding her book she said this: "If you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised."

La ténèbre n'est point ténèbre devant toi:
la nuit comme le jour est lumière.

At the time I learned this Taizé chant, I was often depressed. I remember learning the tenor line, which ends in a glorious musical phrase that paints the word "lumière". I was singing with tears in my eyes because it was incredibly freeing for me to hear that God was even present in the moments when I was feeling down and at my wit's end.  If God could attend those moments to which I had been taught to assign the label "darkness", this was truly good news to me.

I am closing with Brian Wren, one of my favorite hymn writers, who wrote these lines a few years ago:

Joyful is the dark, holy, hidden God,
rolling cloud of night beyond all naming:
Majesty in darkness, Energy of love,
Word-in-Flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Joyful is the dark Spirit of the deep,
winging wildly o'er the world's creation,
silken sheen of midnight plumage black and bright,
swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Joyful is the dark, shadowed stable floor;
angels flicker, God on earth confessing,
as with exultation, Mary, giving birth,
hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb,
waiting for the wonder of the morning;
never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom:
darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark depth of love divine,
roaring, looming thundercloud of glory,
holy, haunting beauty, living, loving God.
Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

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