Learning to Walk in the Dark

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, November 29, 2020.

Let us pray: O Lord, may your Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path as we move through these dark times. Amen.

Each year, as the fall was ending and winter was approaching, the ancient Celtic Christians would move their flocks of sheep, goats, cattle and horses into enclosures near their homes. They had no idea about the earth’s orbit and the sun’s rotation and how the seasons worked. So, they prayed throughout the dark season that the light would return.

The ancient Celts viewed the of the harvest and the beginning of winter as a “thin place,” where heaven and earth briefly touched and the dead returned to seek revenge on those who had hurt them. They celebrated a Gaelic festival called Samain and wore disguises to ensure that the dead could not recognize them, giving birth to Halloween as we know it and ushering in the “darker half” of the year.

Like the ancient Celts, as the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer, and the weather gets colder, we, too, move indoors. We build fires, hunker down and sleep under warm blankets and quilts as the darkness envelopes us. Like the Celts, we must learn how to navigate in the dark.

This year, we are moving into an specially dark winter with COVID on the rise. Everyone is worried. Much of life is shutting down – gyms, bars, some indoor dining, concerts, professional sporting events. Many fear taking public transportation. We are urged not to gather with family for the holidays, and for the first time in 100 years there are no Christmas parties to attend.

Whatever challenges we face – isolation, ill health, uncertainty, financial worries, or the loss of a loved one – COVID has compounded our difficulties. The darkness is darker than ever. Hence, this year we are not worried about wreaths and Christmas lights or finding the exact right gift. Instead, we are thinking about how not to get infected or infect others and wondering about when we can be vaccinated and when will COVID end. In the Evening Prayer service we pray:

Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…

To the encroaching darkness, the Church speaks one word, which is strange to some and familiar to others – Advent. It signifies one of the principle seasons of the Church Year. It begins today and lasts until Christmas Eve. Advent comes from a Latin word meaning “coming”, and it signifies the coming of Christ – the Light of the World – into our lives.

Advent always begins in the dark. Darkness is often associated with fear and uncertainty. Advent is a season of waiting and watching in silence and solitude for the light to enter the darkness of our lives and dispel our fear. The great American rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “The inner history of Israel is a history of waiting for God, of waiting for His arrival.” The psalms speak constantly of waiting for God. “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning,” Psalm 130 says. “For God alone my soul in silence waits,” Psalm 62 declares. “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,” the prophet Isaiah announces. As Christians we live our lives in a perpetual Advent between the first and the second coming of Christ, waiting for God’s light to shine into our darkness.

In his play, Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot has a chorus of working people cluster around Canterbury Cathedral as Advent approaches. They sing:

The New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers in darkness…
Some malady is coming upon us…
Ill the wind, ill the time, uncertain the profit, certain the danger.
O late late late is the time, late too late and rotten the year…

Eliot was writing about the impending murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, but he could just as well have been writing about this annus horribilus and COVID which enshrouds our lives like a dark fog. Even in privileged Greenwich, we can sense our mortality. We are used to basing our security on the stock market, electric gates and stone walls that hide our homes in a world where God does not always vanquish evil, suffering and death.

O. Henry, was a prolific writer of countless short stories. He was a heavy drinker, who knew dark times and died early at the age of 48. His biographer, Alphonso Smith, reports his last words were, “Turn up the lights: I don’t want to go home in the dark.” None of us likes to dwell in the dark. All of us have a history with darkness. When I was a boy, nighttime brought on fear, and it was hard for me to fall asleep. I was afraid of snakes and monsters under my bed. When I was a teenager, my parents began their divorce, my mother plunged into depression, drank heavily and tried to take her own life. It was a dark time. After college, I lived in Paris on $3 a day, struggled to learn French and fell into a depression of my own despairing of my future.

It is in the difficult times that we learn how to walk in the dark. Walking in the dark teaches us how to be resilient, courageous, use common sense, seek wisdom and exercise selfcare. In the dark, we discern what truly matters in life. We learn that we need cannot go it alone, but need support to survive the dark chapters of life. We need sunlight, balance, a schedule, things to keep us busy, friends and family to lean on and a faith in God to light our way.

Darkness teaches us to value the light. A study of 21,000 students found that those studying in classrooms with the most daylight improved 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent faster on reading tests over one year than students in classrooms with the least light. It revealed that moving a child from the classroom with the least daylight to one with the most light produced the same improvement as moving a child from the lowest to the highest performing school in the district. Darkness is debilitating. We humans crave the light.

In the dark, we come to value those who walked through the darkness and can guide us towards the light on the other side. When I worked one summer for the church in Kenya, I had to travel from one remote village to another in the jungle in the darkest night that I can ever recall. A Christian woman from one of the villages served as my guide. She wore a white dress. I could see nothing around me as we walked through the jungle, so I just followed closely behind her, watching her white dress like a flashlight to guide my way. Whenever life casts us into the dark, it is wise to find a guide – someone who knows how to walk through the darkness that we are passing through because they have been there before us.

I received an email this week from a women in Minnesota, whose son was dying in a hospital in New York City. I went to visit him and sat by his beside reading psalms with him and anointed him with oil for the journey that he would soon be taking. His mother, who could not be with him, emailed me a message, saying, “You brightened my darkness.” Isn’t that what Christians try to do? We were put on earth to shine God’s light in the darkness and to brighten the lives of others, who are groping in the dark. Early in John’s Gospel we read:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1, 3b-5)

Without Christ’s light there would be no Handel’s Messiah, no Gothic cathedrals, no hospitals, universities or charities to care for the poor. And without God’s light, we would not be able to bear the loss of those who have died, not trusting that we would see one another again in an afterlife. Without Christ’s light, we would not have a guide available to us at all times and in all places to walk beside us through the darkest chapters of our lives.

William Holman Hunt painted three portraits of Jesus, entitled “The Light of the World,” based on the words of Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.” Each portrait shows Jesus carrying a lantern, gently knocking on a wooden door of an old cottage covered with vines. If you look carefully, you will see that the door has no handle. It can only be opened from the inside. Fifty years after he painted it, Hunt explained that the door represents “the obstinately shut mind.” We all know someone who has given up on God or disdains religion or who won’t take the courageous steps needed to dispel the darkness from his or her life. The door is shut. Jesus knocks, but God will never take us by storm. We alone have the power to open the door and let Christ – the Light of the World – enter our lives.

In his biography of Thomas Edison, Edmund Morris writes, “In his thirty-third year Edison embarked on what he afterward called ‘the greatest adventure of my life… akin to venturing on an uncharted sea.’ His challenge was to take the small incandescent thing he had just perfected – history’s first… electric bulb – and turn it into a vast urban illumination system…” Now, people around the world must do something similar. We must create space for God’s light to enter our lives darkened by this pandemic, which in our country alone has killed nearly 270,000 of us and where blindness to racism and climate change cause us to continue to walk in the dark.

John Henry Newman was only thirty-two when his life fell into turmoil and he fled on a sea voyage to escape and find peace with God. His ship was moored in the Bay of Salerno for sweltering days and nights. One night, as the water lapped against the ship’s hull, he wrote:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.

We learn to walk in the dark by taking one step at a time. I close with a story told by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Before becoming a Bishop, he served as the Rector of an inner-city church in Baltimore, where for several summers local Christians and he held street corner revivals to share their faith in heavily drug-infested areas of the city. One November, someone suggested that they go caroling through the neighborhood. So, they did. Curry recalls,

As we sang, old people frightened into their homes came out and sang. Children joined the parade and sang. Then we came to this one alley. It was like a black hole. There seemed to be no light going in or coming out… It was, as James Weldon Johnson once said, ‘Blacker than midnight in a cypress swamp. The only light that you could see was the faint light of one of the crack pipes lighting up with death. There were people there, but no voices were heard… Only vague shadows of human-like figures as from the cave in Plato’s Republic. If ever I saw Dante’s Inferno, or looked the devil in the face, it was there. Death! Hell! And it was there that we sang, ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm all is bright.’ Then something strange happened… maybe someone in an apartment back in the alley turned on a light. However it happened a ray of light literally pierced that darkened alley for a moment. Then, at about the same time, someone in that valley of the shadow of death sang back to us, ‘Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.’

Curry said,

I know that the [drug] dealing continues. I know that the powers of hell are still raging. I know that death still deals its demonic destruction. I am no fool. But this much I know… for a brief moment, the light did shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. For just a moment, like the twinkling of an eye, you could see through the shadows of our sickness to a shining city not made with human hands. For just a moment you knew that there is a kingdom called heaven… and a promise land.

My friends, one day, we won’t have to wear masks or be afraid to fly in airplanes or enter movie theaters. One day, our children will play together without fear. One day, we will fill our church again for baptisms, weddings and funerals. One day, the light will overcome the darkness and COVID will be gone. O come, O come Emmanuel. Amen.