Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. But over you the Lord will rise, and God’s glory will appear upon you.
This text, which the church names as Canticle 11, one of our holy songs of faith, comes from the 60th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Part of this chapter is always one of the lessons for the Feast of Epiphany, on January 6, and the canticle is often used in this season – we are using it as our Song of Praise. Isaiah’s imagery of light dawning on a people of darkness is echoed in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in Zechariah’s prophetic song to his newborn son John: In the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness! And in John’s Gospel: A light shined in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it!
More broadly, light in darkness is a central image and theme for the season of Epiphany. No doubt, that has a lot to do with how these feasts, Christmas and Epiphany, came to be set in deepest darkest winter as Christianity spread northwards in Europe. It was dark. And cold, and dismal. And everyone yearned for light.
Light shining in the darkness: The image is so familiar and seems so natural that it’s easy not to think about it. Darkness is bad; you can’t see, something could be lurking just behind you, and you might step on a Lego. Light is good, and safe, and beautiful. But there’s always always more going on with our language and our images than we realize in the front of our minds. So I spent some time this week thinking about darkness. Looking at what the Bible, our holy text, says about dark.
What does Scripture say about darkness?
The Old Testament begins in darkness. We have those verses today: God’s spirit moves over the face of the dark and chaotic waters. God creates Light, separates and names Light and Dark, Day and Night. Many Old Testament texts, not just Genesis, focus on God as Creator; and it’s clear in all of them that dark and light both belong to God. The prophet Jeremiah talks about God having a covenant with both Night and Day.
A beautiful example comes from the prophet Amos, in a text that’s used in our Evening Prayer rite: “The One who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night,…. the Lord is his name.” And of course it follows that God is not troubled by the dark – in Psalm 139, the Psalmist prays, “If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me…. Even the darkness is not dark to you; darkness is as light to you.”
The darkness is God’s, and God dwells in darkness. In the book of Exodus, when Moses approaches God for one of their many conversations, God is found in a deep, dense darkness or shadow. Exodus 20:21 says, “The people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” Later, King Solomon says, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.” In the Eastern tradition of iconography, holy images, this sense of darkness and mystery surrounding God is represented in shapes that get darker as you move towards the center, behind representations of Jesus or God the Father.
In the Old Testament, darkness is a rich metaphor. Humans are diurnal animals, adapted to function well in daylight, primarily because vision is our strongest sense. So the dark – the literal dark – is scary for us. We feel vulnerable, because sight, our best way of interpreting the environment around us doesn’t work. So in metaphor that’s only a half-step from reality, darkness becomes an image for those human situations that make us feel the same way literal darkness does: frightened, exposed, lost, helpless, alone or, worse, surrounded by threat. In many Old Testament texts, darkness serves as a evocative shorthand for the soul-conditions of fear, grief, and despair. It’s heavily used in the Book of Job, as Job speaks about his experience of suffering. And it’s this kind of darkness – experienced by a whole people – that the Book of Isaiah evokes with these inspired words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light!” And, much later, “For darkness covers the land, gloom enshrouds the people – but the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you!”
The Old Testament tradition recognizes that darkness can also be useful. Those with ill intentions use dark as cover for their deeds, but so, too, dark can be protection for the righteous and the innocent. Gideon and his tiny army attack an enemy camp by dark, using sleep and confusion as weapons. The Israelites fled from Egypt by night, and Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus fled TO Egypt by night.
Think about how very dark, and how very quiet, night was, before electricity and all our modern conveniences. The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 18, has a lovely description of night: “While gentle silence enveloped all things.” Perhaps because of that gentle silence, darkness and night are also a privileged time for prayer and contemplation. Psalm 63 says, “I meditate on you in the night watches.” Isaiah 26 says, “My soul yearns for you in the night.” David prays by night; so does Judith; so does Jesus. Dreams and holy visions come at night, too. Many theologians and mystics have dug deep in this vein of the holy potential of the dark. Of the power and grace of not-knowing, not-seeing, of releasing that (illusory) sense of mastery and control, of knowing where we are and where we’re going, that comes with light and sight.
For the Old Testament, then, darkness and night carry rich metaphorical weight.
But in some New Testament texts, they take on moral weight as well. As in: Light is Good, Dark is Evil. Darkness becomes a synonym for human wickedness, by another metaphorical step away from literal darkness: either people are wicked because they can’t see what’s good and right, or wicked people love the dark because they imagine it hides their sins.
This usage shows up here and there in the Old Testament – Proverbs, for example, uses darkness as image for wickedness. But it really becomes dominant in the New Testament, especially in the language of the Johannine texts – the gospel and letters that bear the name of John.
There’s ambiguity in John’s language. Sometimes it sounds like he’s using “darkness” much as Job and Isaiah did – darkness as suffering, lack of direction and hope. John’s Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (8:12) And, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (12:46) But elsewhere in John, darkness means intentional human wickedness: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (3:19)
There’s some powerful dark/light imagery in the Epistles, as well. In the letter to the Romans, Paul calls on Christians to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” The letter to the Ephesians says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them,” and, a few verses later, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but … against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”
One thing that happens with texts like that one is that darkness is othered – projected outward onto someone else. Whereas for Job and Isaiah, they themselves, and people like them, struggle in darkness, darkness-as-wickedness is something that besets OTHER people, and we should separate ourselves from it, and them. The first letter to the church in Thessaloniki says, “For you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.”
The imagery and language of Christians as “Children of Light” becomes important for early Christianity. It makes a lot of sense, historically and sociologically. Early Christians were a persecuted minority in a particularly unpleasant chapter in the life of the world, and those conditions can create strong us-them mentalities. Light and dark became the symbolic language our faith-ancestors used to set themselves apart from the chaos, violence and immorality they saw all around them. Seeing themselves as children of light, temporarily trapped in a realm of darkness, helped them feel free and safe, even in the face of terrible suffering.
But early Christianity’s investment in the Light:Good::Dark:Evil dualism has not been especially healthy for Christianity or humanity. Listen to this verse from the first letter of John: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” Wait – remember everything in the Old Testament, about how God creates dark and light, and is at home in both? About how God dwells in deep darkness, a visual metaphor for the mystery of the divine? About how darkness – literal or metaphorical – is part of the natural order, and is the lot of every living thing; and that darkness can be a holy space for prayer, for divine encounter, and for releasing our illusion of autonomy and control? If we follow the Johannine imagery all the way towards a God of Light and Light only – and the Church has leaned that way – well: we lose a lot. We lose a lot.
Arise, shine, for your light has come! Inevitably, we read a text like Isaiah 60, or Luke 1, through all those layers of history and meaning. Is the darkness named here a literal darkness? Of night or storm or a season when it’s dark by 4pm? A human situation in which we need, simply, light? Is this the metaphorical darkness of human pain and struggle? Something from which we need deliverance and comfort? Is this the moralized darkness of human wickedness? Something from which we need repentance?
And if it’s the last – darkness-as-wickedness – can we identify some group of people as the problem, and set ourselves apart from them as the pure children of light? That’s a really common, lasting, and destructive human impulse – to locate darkness in the other, erase it from oneself.
Maybe the biggest reason to be thoughtful about the Church’s use of the language of light and darkness is because, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans made a really stupid yet effective association between darkness-as-wickedness and dark skin. The concept of darkness was racialized, as part of the rationale for European exploitation of Africa. For Europeans first enslaving, then colonizing African peoples, darkness of skin and imagined civilizational, religious, and intellectual “darkness” all got wrapped up together, in their concept of Africa as “The Dark Continent.” Europeans told themselves that Africans were a people of uncontrolled appetites and senseless violence, even as European colonizers in Africa acted with uncontrolled appetite and senseless violence. Locating darkness in the other; erasing it from yourself.
And that association of dark skin with moral and intellectual inferiority became part of the racial order and ideology in the United States. Those meanings aren’t there in Scripture; those are layers added by human sin in the intervening centuries. But we can’t just peel them away; history is sticky. A study document from the United Church of Canada reflecting on light and dark imagery in the Bible observes, “Before [the 18th century], the positive and negative aspects of light and dark were not systematically assigned to different peoples. Once this separation of peoples based on race became entrenched in education, science, economic, social, and political policies …, it [became] virtually impossible to use these terms in ways devoid of a racist agenda.”
It may sound to some folks like hypersensitivity, to say that when the Church uses Scriptural texts about darkness, we should be mindful of the racist resonances of those words. But look around this room: we are an overwhelmingly white parish, living in a culture that privileges and protects white folks. When people of color tell us, Please be careful how you use this language, we have to listen. Because it is a blind spot for us. A darkness in which we cannot see clearly. We know that our culture tells us that light and white are better than dark and brown. We know that children, including kids of color, show a preference for white-skinned dolls by the age of three. I fervently long for the church not be yet another place that reinscribes those messages and meanings.
And yet – and yet. I don’t feel ready to give up this language. Some of the most powerful images in Scripture play with light and dark: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
So as we sing and pray and reflect on the images of light and dark in this season, let us bear in mind that the light of Christ that we welcome, and follow, and strive to shine in our lives – the light of Christ shines harshly on the categories and structures by which we divide and exclude and impoverish one another. Following that Light means making no peace with the sin of racism in its in many forms, in our world and our hearts.
And as we sing and pray and reflect on the images of light and dark in this season, let’s get literal. Let these images work in us as the simple and profound visual metaphors they were intended to be. Imagine sitting in deep darkness, seeing the first faint hints of dawn. That’s the feeling Isaiah means to evoke. And let’s remember, too, the riches of darkness, as known to the Old Testament tradition: safety, reflection, peace, holiness, and the wisdom of unknowing.
United Church of Canada statement:
An interesting reflection on light/dark imagery in literature: