Those Who Sit in Darkness
“I don’t know if we can make it through the darkness,” I said to my partner Matthew.
It was four years ago and we had ventured into the backwoods of the Catskills to find this gorgeous rocky outcrop called Huckleberry Point that had an amazing sunset vista.
We were novices at the time and did not bring with us a single source of light, so we sprinted from rock to rock as the sun set down and the outline of trees became fuzzy.
My greatest fear at that moment when the sun set was that we would not be able to find our way through the darkness.
Do you ever find yourself with that fear? The fear that you will not be able to find your way through the darkness as the light seems to fade and diminish from all sides?
Darkness comes to us in many ways. It comes in the shortening winter days, in the things we fear, in the loneliness we experience, in the pain we endure. In times of difficulty, we too find ourselves wondering, “Will we ever find our way through the darkness?”
That is a question asked not only by us, but by one of the most famous saints of all time, Mother Teresa. I always think of Mother Teresa as a holy person who walked closely with God and always experienced light. Yet, in a book of writings that came out after she died, Mother Teresa writes about her struggle to keep the faith. She notes times when, “All is darkness” and she experiences a deep sense of loneliness and separation from God.
What do we do when the darkness descends around us?
This is the question that Zechariah wrestles with in the text today. In the Scripture today, we heard only his song to God. Yet, prior to this song, Zechariah too had learned to walk in the darkness. Zechariah dwelled in a foreign empire where he was not allowed to be a citizen and was unsure of what the future held for his people. In the face of this uncertainty, Zechariah went to serve God each day at the Temple and prayed for change.
Then one day, as he prayed, an angel of God appears and says:
“Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid for your wife Elizabeth will bear a child who will make ready a people prepared for your God.”
In disbelief, Zechariah stutters, “Me and Elizabeth? We are going to have a child? Do you know how old we are?”
In response to Zechariah’s questions, the angel takes away his ability to talk so that he can see and ponder all things. The angel takes away the distraction of talking to heighten Zechariah’s ability to see the ways that God is at work even in the long nights of our lives. The angel removes the ambient light so that Zechariah can perceive the gentle promise of the stars, the Milky Way and the moon shines at night. In silence, Zechariah wonders at Elizabeth’s pregnancy. In silence, Zechariah witnesses Mary’s arrival and her pregnancy with Jesus. In silence, Zechariah experiences the truth that even in darkness God walks beside us; God does not forget us; God says to us, “Come bear the beams of my love.”
In the midst of the dark night experienced by an entire people, Zechariah and Elizabeth bear the beams of God’s love and give birth to John the Baptist, who would one day testify to the coming of Jesus, the coming of the One who walks beside us no matter how difficult the hour.
Days after his son’s birth, Zechariah words come pouring out, “Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel, for you have visited and redeemed your people … Such is the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”
Ye though we walk through the valley of darkness and the shadow of death, we will fear no evil for Thou art with us, which is important to remember, because we, as a society, we have this way of being afraid of the dark, as if the night itself should be avoided at all costs.
And yet author Barbara Brown Taylor warns again the dangers of living in a 24-hour solar spirituality. This kind of spirituality focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith, and anchoring one’s self in answered prayers and certainty of belief. In a solar spirituality, if you experience any darkness, it is because of your own inadequacies and this tradition begs you not to speak of it.
In contrast, Taylor says that she finds a lunar spirituality to be much truer to life experience. In a lunar spirituality, the Divine Light available to us waxes and wanes with the seasons. Taylor suggests that the moon, which changes each night, is a truer mirror for the soul than the sun that looks the same day in and day out.
In today’s passage, God is inviting Zechariah to experience a lunar spirituality, reminding him that even in our darkest hour there is still a light that guides our way. Do see the soft gentle light of the stars and the moon?
My friend Jennifer Zogg, who walked the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage path in Europe, tells the story of meeting a friend along the Way who woke up one day at 1 a.m. to walk by light of the full moon. He trekked only by moonlight, surprised by its brightness, and discovering as he traveled that peace surrounded him and that he was not afraid.
Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of the dark, because there is starlight, there is moonlight that reminds us of God’s promise as we journey on to daybreak. Do not be afraid because you are not alone. God is with you, especially now.
This is truth that Mother Teresa embodied in Calcutta, even as the Divine light waxed and waned in her own life. As a young nun, Mother Theresa journeyed to the slums of Calcutta, where families were squashed into small rooms, enduring inhumane conditions. In the slums, she heard the voice of God calling her, say “Come, come carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light.”
Come be my light as we journey on to daybreak.
And so, Mother Teresa built homes for the dying and the lepers who had nowhere else to go. She ministered for decades to the poorest of the poor and, one day, someone comes up to her who is financially well-off and says, “Please send someone to my house. My wife is half mental and I am half blind. But we are longing to hear the loving sound of a human voice.”
They had everything. Yet, they were dying of loneliness, dying to hear a human voice.
Mother Teresa says, how do we know someone like that is not next to our home or in our home? Those who sit in darkness are all around us and Mother Theresa tells us: do not to be afraid of walking in the darkness, because that is precisely where our light is most needed.
Come be My light, Jesus says to us, that we might find our way out of the woods and journey home together.
Come be My Light, Jesus says to us, which is exactly what Mother Teresa does when she establishes a mission among the poor in the outback of Australia who live tin and cardboard shacks. One day she goes to visit them, entering a shack, saying to the man, “Please allow me to make your bed and wash your clothes.” He keeps saying, “I’m alright.” They go back and forth until he relents. After she washed everything, the man pulls out an envelope and opens it up to reveal another envelope, then another, until it shows a photo of his father. Mother Teresa looks at it and looks at him and says, “You are so much like your father.” The man is overjoyed. Then he puts it back in the first envelope, the second one, the third one and tucks back in the pocket near his heart. After Mother Teresa cleaned the room, she finds a big lamp full of dirt and asks, “Don’t you light this lamp, such a beautiful lamp. Don’t you light it?” The man replies, “For whom? For months and months and months nobody has ever come to me. For whom will I light it?” So Mother Teresa says, “Won’t you light it if the Sisters come to you?” He says yes. So the sisters start going to him about 5 or 10 minutes a day and lighting the lamp. After some time he gets in the habit of lighting the lamp himself. Slowly, the sisters stop going to him. Then Mother Teresa forgets about it completely until two years later he sends word, “Tell Mother, my friend, the light she lit in my life is still burning.”
The light lit in my life is still burning. Come be My light, Jesus says to us, that we might draw near to God and one another and discover, in the quiet wonder of the night, beauty beyond all measure, that in the stillness of the evening, we might join with Zechariah in perceiving God’s promise and in proclaiming: “Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel.” Thank you, O God, for lighting our path by moonlight and guiding our feet into to the path of peace. Amen.