In the beginning there was nothing. God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better. So said Ellen DeGeneres, in a wry comment on the first Genesis creation myth.
It’s true the myth has God about to create the waters and the land, the sky and all living creatures but before the light there was not nothing but darkness. Like Arlo Guthrie said, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.”
God and light are bracketed together in many faiths but what do we make of darkness? In church, this time of year, we hear of a people who walked in darkness & have seen a great light; we hear of the light that shines undefeated & uncomprehended by the darkness. The darkness is negative; it’s dangerous, equivalent to ignorance. And not in church only. Think of the words we associate with darkness: nightmare, cave, death, evil, criminal, danger, doubt, fear. Darkness is almost “shorthand for anything that scares” us (Barbara Brown Taylor).
We battle it with lights; drive it away with torches; shut the doors and curtains against it. Even so, as every day gives way to night, the darkness returns, a part of creation that we need. Like we need the winter when the land rests, we need the nights when we may rest. Such darkness is not to be feared or battled but to be embraced as a good and necessary part of life. We need not, like children, be afraid of the dark, be afraid of imaginary monsters under our beds.
But darkness also serves as shorthand for the hard times in our lives, the darkness of grief, of loss, of illness mental and physical. Such experiences, such darkness are perhaps not to be welcomed in the same way as we might welcome the night with its opportunity for rest. But can there still be positives in such darkness?
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “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.”
Do you recognise any truth in that? I do. I am what I am because of my dark times. I am what I am because the darkness threatened to overwhelm me, and still, at times, comes creeping in to remind me of its presence. My heart and mind were forged not only in life’s best experiences but in its worst; in darkness as well as sunshine. And I wonder because of that if we see anew that idea of the light shining in the darkness.
That light, ever there faith says though experience may doubt it, even deny it, that light does not dispel the darkness but illuminates it, explains it. I spoke here recently about my interest in Turner’s painting and his treatment of light. Such was Turner’s fascination with light that towards the end of his career it appeared that all else in his work was at times incidental to it. Yet the light was not pure brightness even where there seems to be nothing but light depicted; there were gradations of light, there was darkness through which light shone, there was shade which by its presence revealed the light for what it was. Light needs darkness in which to shine.
Yet light can also cause us not to see. As James Thurber said: “There are two kinds of light – the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures.” So it is with the story of the incarnation, the story of God in Jesus, the divine light in human form. This is light not given to dazzle us, nor to blind us, but to help us see, not even to dispel the darkness but to illuminate it for us.
The old hymn used to say that “all will be as sunshine in the presence of the Lord.” That patent nonsense has been replaced with “all will be illumined.” And rightly so, because to follow the Jesus way is not to become immune to the dark places that are the human lot but to be open to the possibility that even when we cannot see it, the light shines still, somewhere, somehow. And because of that light from time to time that darkness may prove to be our making. As the psychiatrist and pioneer of near death studies Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggests, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.”
That light within, that light alongside, that illuminating presence may just turn that darkness into light for us. And that experience may make us light bearers also, in the role, as Felix Adler saw it, of heroes or saints. “The hero,” he wrote, “is the one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see by. The saint is the man who walks through the dark paths of the world, himself a light.” Hero, saint or merely carrier of a small flickering flame, however great the darkness, if Christ is born not in a Bethlehem stable only but within us we may just shed enough light for another to see by as well as lighting our own way.