Winter in the northern hemisphere is punctuated with the Christmas celebration. In the days following the winter solstice, the celebration of Jesus’ birth resounds with the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘the people walking in darkness have seen a great light’. A time of celebration in the midst of bleak and long nights is both a welcome relief,and a sign of hope. In Australia, no such community celebration resounds. This year even our football team went missing for a week. As we emerge from the winter solstice into the cold months of winter, where is the sign of hope and cause of celebration?
The reality and symbolism of darkness is an important one to grapple with on the journey of faith. We are invited to contemplate those moments in which life seems to be draining away, hope is shattered, and despair is close at hand. Such tortuous times pose key questions of meaning. For many they are the seed of unbelief, the time when the idea of a God who is present with us is abandoned. Traditional and popular notions of worship and of God seem to strike a discordant note with life’s harshest realities – illness, death, grief, abandonment, as the lonely and isolating darkness envelops, wringing the threads of life out.
Signs of life in the darkness are hard to discover, largely because they are different and unfamiliar. While accustomed companions of the daytime have retreated to their nests and burrows – and their homes – a different population comes to life in the evening hours. The possum wends his way around treetops, power lines and rooftops. The snail undertakes its patient and persistent journeys through the night. The owl’s haunting cry penetrates the unknown reaches, and the flying fox glides her way skilfully through the shadows. Strange that many of these creatures are considered pests – yet their familiarity with the evening, and comfort with the dimly lit places, remind us of the life present in the absence of light. They invite us to reflect on the life at work in the dark places of our own lives, the places where we might indeed find pests, but also those who work in harmony with the greater purpose of life. They remind us that there is still much of life with which we are unfamiliar, of a beauty to be explored and cherished, even in discomfort.
The instinctive response when darkness overwhelms us is to focus on that which the darkness has taken. We enter into grief – an unfamiliar and pesky place in which we are ill-prepared to dwell and ill-equipped to journey. We sit, initially disempowered and intimidated, consequently prevented from seeing that which the darkness reveals. With encouragement and support, we might find words to express our lament, and courage to express the anger and grief our isolation has birthed. In time we might also be given the strength to begin to explore that dark place, to dare to look for light in places and forms we had hitherto not known. We discover the unique beauty of the darkness, where the bright and penetrating light of the sun gives way to the less imposing but often more entrancing glitter of star light.
Intriguingly, we can look directly at the sun with safety only when its full power is diminished – a limited darkness allowing us to appreciate its beauty – whether it be at the beginning or end of the day, or through the cloudy sky. The moon and stars on the other hand bear no such limitations - we are able not only to see it in its fullness, but reflect on and examine its beauty, both with the naked eye, and through the magnification provided by a telescope. Light in this place is an enemy to appreciation of their beauty. Here is the first place we are invited to discover the beauty of the darkness.
The winter season is a regular and somewhat predictable time of withdrawing, inviting the moments of reflection and introspection. The dark seasons of our life are rarely so foreseeable, often coming as rude interruptions to the patterns of our lives. But that ought not diminish the potential contained within them for discovering life and light in new shapes and guises.
The central image of the christian faith is found in the darkness. The gospel writers record the moments of Jesus death occurring in the midst of a darkness which had overtaken the land. Similarly the resurrection took place before the woman and the disciples had reached the tomb at first light on Easter morning. Life in the darkness. Hope born in, and emerging from despair.
There is no Christmas celebration to remind us of this hope in the midst of the darkness of an Australian winter. But in the nocturnal scratches and cries of our native animals, we are reminded that life is present in unique and intriguing forms, waiting to be discovered… the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
June 27, 2002