There are shadows within us. Yes, there is also a burning flame, an Inner Light as the Quakers call it, the image of God in us. But the shadows are there. We’ve been exploring them throughout Lent. Morton Kelsey, a priest and psychologist, puts it this way, “Each of us has underneath our ordinary personality, which we show to the public, a cellar in which we hide the refuse and rubbish which we would rather not see ourselves or let others see.” (From Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, Orbis Books.) In this dimly lit cellar are many half shapes — the unloved, rejected, despised parts of ourselves — and from these parts emanate shadowy emotions — fear, shame, jealousies, regrets and grievances, deep sorrows, an anger that can erupt out of seemingly nowhere.
And then, it gets deeper. Below this basement, Kelsey says, lies a sub-basement, a “deeper hold in which there are dragons and demons, a truly hellish place, full of violence and hatred and viciousness. Sometimes these lower levels break out,” and then all hell breaks loose. Kelsey is, I believe, talking about the sub-basement of the collective shadow. As we’ve said during Lent, just as we have each have a personal shadow, a personal basement, so we live within groups that have collective shadows, collective basements. And when that collective shadow erupts, it can be truly terrifying. We’ve talked during Lent about how QAnon is an eruption of our nation’s collective shadow; the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 another; the targeted assaults on Asian American women and elders just the latest example.
We see an eruption of collective shadow in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, as soldiers jeer as they press thorns into his head, as guards at the foot of his cross gamble to see who will get his clothing. This story we tell every Maundy Thursday is such a difficult one for me to hear because it reminds me of this sub-basement, of the cruelty that hides in some deeply shadowed part of our collective selves. Holy Week — out of which we have just come — forces us to contemplate these collective shadows if we aren’t already living them.
There are shadows deep within us. From our personal demons to the collective ogre that can emerge at times, these shadows have the power to make life a living hell.
On my altar is an icon from the Eastern Orthodox tradition that means so much to me. To me, it is the Gospel — the Good News — Easter morning — in visual form. Every day that I sit in that chair and look at it, I am reminded of what I most truly believe, of what I want my life to be about, of what we are doing here.
The Orthodox tradition believes that icons can reveal spiritual truth just as Scripture does. They are, literally, considered sacred texts. This sacred text is called “The Descent into Hell.” It’s an icon used primarily on Holy Saturday, which is the day between Good Friday and Easter. We don’t say the Apostles’ Creed in our congregation, but this “Descent into Hell” is found in that creed: “We believe in Jesus Christ… who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. The third day he rose again.” So, somewhere between death and resurrection, there is this descent to the dead. On this day, the Eastern Orthodox Church contemplates the mystery of Christ’s descent into hell, the place of death, a shadowy realm if there ever was one.
This icon shows this descent. It shows Christ – often riding a cross like a surfboard, although not in the one you see here – descending into the dark belly of the earth, breaking the locked door of the tombs (see locks on this icon), and exposing the deepest recesses of creation to the light of heaven. Christ is seen as entering so profoundly into the human condition and into creation itself that the light of God is able to enter into these shadowy basements and sub-basements. This icon reveals the essential truth of the resurrection – that there is no place so dark, so shadowed, that Divine Light and Divine Love cannot enter it.
Christ has arisen — but, just as importantly, Christ has descended. Christ descends into our locked cellars, where our fear, shame, sadness and anger wait in dark corners, where the half shapes of the unloved and rejected parts of ourselves live in shadow, and Christ exposes all of this to the healing light of Divine love. Many of us have been meditating using this image throughout Lent, of bringing what is in our shadows into the light of Divine Love. Joanna talked movingly last Sunday about how she is becoming aware of those shadowy parts of herself and bringing them into consciousness and into compassion.
If I could do one thing as a pastor to heal and transform us, I would wave my magic wand and have us bring into the light of Divine Love that which is lowly and despised and feared in ourselves. I would wave my magic wand and all of our young children would know that the part of themself that doesn’t want to share, that hits their sibling, that is aggressive, selfish, willful — that that part of themself is also beloved. And I suspect many of our children do know this.
I would wave my magic wand and all of our middle and high schoolers — heck, all of us! — would love the parts of our body that don’t conform to some stupidly unobtainable standardof attractiveness. They — we — would love their nose, their hips, their body, because they are beautifully and wonderfully made. We would know as beloved the parts of ourself that disappoint our parents or teachers or coaches, or that are not as smart, funny, athletic or popular as we want to be.
I would wave my magic wand and and we would bring into the light of Divine Love the sad, abandoned, rejected part of ourself who does’t believe they are worthy of love. We would each bring into the light of Divine Love the parts of ourself that we hypercritically judge and scold and then we would bring into the light of Divine Love that part of ourself that judges and scolds. Joanna, last week, called it the supremacist in her — that part of ourself who is so often cruel to ourself, who treats us worse than we would ever imagine treating another person. Talk about someone who needs love!
Christ has arisen — but, just as importantly, Christ has descended. Not only does Christ descend into our personal basements and expose them with the light of Divine Love, Christ descends into our sub-basements, where our most dangerous dragons and demons lurk, and shines the light of heaven even there.
Ruby Sales, whom I’ve mentioned before, is a civil rights icon who has seen the worst of what the collective shadow can inflict on people. Her grandmother was born into slavery, her parents into the Jim Crow South. She attended segregated schools. She and her people were the recipients of the shadow projection of white supremacy. They were society’s unwanted, unloved, rejected ones. They had seen the sub-basement of humans. And Ruby’s life could have been a living hell.
And yet, she grew up in a religion — what she calls black folk religion, the religion of enslaved people — that placed her from birth in the light of Divine Love. This black folk religion taught people who were considered property and disposable that they were not victims — that they were essential in the eyes of God, and even essential to democracy.She was able to sit in the light of that Divine Love and claim herself as beloved, as worthy beyond measure. Hear her describe this (5:15-6:22).
Black folk religion was able to bring Ruby and so many others into the light of Divine Love. But there’s more. That same black folk religion taught Ruby to sing:“I love everybody. I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart.” Listen to her talk more about this: (9:28-10:26)
Black folk religion so thoroughly allowed the light of Christ into the deepest basements and sub-basements that they could even affirm the humanity of the enslaver, the one who was projecting this horrible collective shadow onto them.
And here’s the thing. I just gave you the example of Ruby Sales. But I could have given you scores of examples of the ways in which the light of Christ enters into our personal basements and collective sub-basements and brings the light of love and healing to those places. I’ve seen this happen in your lives and the lives of others. I’ve experienced it in myself. I’ve seen it at work in the world in places of suffering and shadow so intense that I can barely imagine how love and light can enter there. I don’t need to believe in Resurrection, like it’s some leap of faith. My faith in resurrection hinges on the fact that there is is no place so dark, so shadowed, that Divine Light and Divine Love cannot enter there — and I have seen this with my own eyes. And this is what I want my life to be about, it is what I want our life to be about, what I think it is about — to be transformed by this love that reaches into the depths of hell and to help bring that transformative love to the world.
Christ has arisen — but just as importantly, Christ has descended. Christ has descended – and is still descending – into the deepest recesses of our humanity and exposing them to the light of love. Christ has descended – and is still descending — into the suffering we bear, the suffering we inflict on each other, and is exposing it to the light of love. Christ has descended – and is still descending – into the locked, dark vaults of our hearts and is breaking the locks and opening doors where despair, shame silence and hatred dwells. And the light of Love is streaming in.
Christ has arisen! Alleluia! And Christ has descended. Will you say it with me? Alleluia.