Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights, VI:
Embrace the Darkness
Right now the earth is hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour in its ellipse around the sun and rotating on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour. Imagine that: you and I, right now, apparently stationary, are racing around at 1,000 miles per hour in a tight circle and at 67,000 miles per hour in a larger orbit. Therefore, Night and Day.
“God said, ‘Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.”
And from that very first day, the reliable rhythm of Night and Day has persisted for five billion years and shaped our biology and psychology more fundamentally than anything else I can think of.
The Christian religion addresses this lived reality of every creature on the planet with its two greatest, happiest festivals. We have a Festival of Sunrise—Easter—and a Festival of Midnight—Christmas.
At Christmastime, we embrace the Darkness. O Holy Night. Silent Night. It Came upon a Midnight Clear. “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” “She bore for us a Savior, when half-spent was the night.”
We are diurnal creatures. Night is not our home; Day is our home. From childhood, we are taught to fear the Darkness. When the sun sets, we are summoned inside from our outdoor play. Our parents leave the bedroom door open just a crack, and line the hallway with night lights. When we are scared of the Dark, they visit our rooms to make sure there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed.
So embracing the Darkness is neither natural nor intuitive. Darkness is dangerous. But Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
Dr. Taylor says it is a mistake when our faith ignores or scorns or flees from the Darkness. She says that much of American Christianity today features what she calls “solar spirituality,” which focuses on staying in the sunny side of faith around the clock.
I think she is right about solar spirituality. There are many things I admire about Joel Osteen. His luxurious locks, for example; and his flawless oratorical style; and the 40,000 people who every Sunday attend his church where the Houston Rockets used to play basketball; and the ten million people who watch his sermons on TV. He brings Jesus to the masses every week.
But Joel Osteen practices solar spirituality. Every single week, he preaches a mild version of the prosperity Gospel; all you have to do is believe in Jesus and then Jesus will make you rich, popular, and trouble-free. I love that sunny attitude.
But solar spirituality doesn’t work so well when your life starts falling apart—when you lose your job, or receive a frightening prognosis, or your marriage falls apart, or your kids start acting out.
Miriam Greenspan is a psychotherapist. Her firstborn son Aaron died at two months old without ever leaving the hospital, which of course meant that “she woke up every morning in the salt sea of grief and went to bed in it every night...This went on for weeks, then months, and she began to notice how uncomfortable her grief was making those around her when it did not dry up on schedule.”
Solar spirituality treats lingering sadness as unnatural and uncomfortable. But it’s not unnatural and it shouldn’t make us uncomfortable. Given the implacable, unbending mortality rate for the human race, grief is the most inevitable of the human emotions.
Lunar spirituality teaches us that the Darkness is where Dr. Greenspan needed to sit for a while, until time and kindness and small joys creeping back into her life showed her that the sun would eventually rise again and restore her to the land of the living.
If you’re in a dark place—for instance, if you’re in the middle of what is turning out to be at least a year-long, lonely, isolating pandemic—if you’re in a dark place, embrace the darkness. Learn from it. What is it trying to teach you about what is important in your life, and how much you adore the treasured ones God has—with lavish, unmerited grace—placed in your life?
The Washington Post asked readers to sum up the year 2020 in one word or phrase. Two thousand people responded. Here are a few:
Dumpster Fire (the sixth most popular)
I Can’t Breathe
You’re on Mute
Six Feet Apart but Closer Than Ever
Daily Search for Little Wins
But The Post itself decided that the best short summation of 2020 was submitted by a nine-year-old boy from Beverly Hills, Michigan. He said, “2020 is like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting run over by a submarine.”
There’s a lot of darkness around right now. So soon after the winter solstice, that is literally true; and so deep into this viral menace, it’s figuratively true as well. So we’ll speak it, and name it, and give it over to God.
Carpe diem. Seize the day. You hear it all the time, because it is a shrewd and ancient wisdom. Live while you’ve got life, because there’s never enough of it. But carpe noctem is shrewd and ancient too. Seize the night. There are so many things we can learn only in the darkness.
Night is cooler and quieter than Day. When the sun sets, and the color of the air turns first orange and then gold, and then silver, and finally pitch, stillness settles over the noisy, turbulent world. There is respite from the sun’s intrusive, stifling spotlight.
The night will keep your secrets, if you have them. The night will give you places to hide, if you need them. Romance is more likely at night. Conviviality flourishes in the amber light of your favorite tavern. Filial bonds thicken around the campfire under the silver glister of moonlight.
The stygian dome of the night sky is punctured by a billion wormholes of brightness; it’s porous; it’s permeable; it’s as if SomeONE or SomeTHING is trying to get through to us. Indeed, Someone IS.
A savior is born at night. Angel song broadcasts the good news for all people. A stellar anomaly guides wise men and women to the ancient stable.
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: Harper One, 2014), p. 5.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., pp. 76–77.
Eliza Goren, Shefali S. Kulkarni, and Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, “The Washington Post Asked Readers to Describe 2020 in One Word or Phrase. Here’s What They Said,” The Washington Post, December 18, 2020.