Sermon: The Fertile Darkness

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

This sermon is the second in our Advent series, “Rhythms of Rest.”

Genesis 1:1-5, 2:1-3

Having moved to the East Bay from San Francisco this spring, one of the things Eric and I are most excited about is having a yard in which to grow and tend plants. We’ve also recognized we needed wisdom in this process since neither of us have experience gardening in the Bay Area climate. So this past May we invited Dolores to come over and help us get to know the plant life in our yard. It was fun to walk around the front and back yards with her noting the plants and trees, and us dreaming about what else could be planted. 

During this walkabout we noticed our neighbors prolific nasturtium plants on the curb and Dolores showed us how to harvest seeds. The three of us gathered a few handfuls of seeds and a couple days later Eric and I planted them in an empty bed in our front yard. That was May. In the following months we saw very little evidence of the nasturtium seeds, although we watered the bed on a regular basis. But then following the atmospheric river downpour in October, nasturtium plants started popping up like crazy. 

In the months since May I figured the seeds were doomed since very few of them broke through the soil… and we had planted A LOT of seeds. However, it turns out they were just biding their time in the fertile darkness of the soil, waiting for the right conditions to burst forth. 

As we celebrate this second Sunday of advent we are invited to reflect on the fertile darkness. We are invited to be planted like seeds, and to hibernate in the fertile darkness of the soil until we have what we need to emerge and unfurl our leaves. 

Our scripture passage today offers us another beautiful and provocative image of the fertile darkness. The creation story in the text begins with darkness covering the face of the deep. The word for “the deep” in Hebrew is “tehom” and it is feminine in origin. Tehom is also a cognate for Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of creation. From her body the earth is born. 

Biblical scholar Catherine Keller, in her book “Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming” articulates a tehomic theology. Rather than the world being created from nothing and at the command of God’s (assumed male) voice, Keller envisions God as the maternal, ‘fluid, bottomless potentiality’ and as ‘womb of self-organizing complexity.’ Her ​​tehomic theology envisions “the Deep” as a fluid, indeterminate, germinating compilation of potentiality that generates itself and everything else infinitely, with no clear beginning or end.

Although the Hebrew creation story is by no means a scientific account, Keller’s reframing of “the deep” resonates with the biological truth that all life on earth emerged from the waters. 

Furthermore tehomic theology names and honors the chaos associated with the deep fertile darkness, rather than needing God to control it, as has been the project of dominant Christian theology. Tehom is an invitation to allow what scientists call ‘self-organizing complexity’ to be read as God acting as co-creator. 

Darkness covered the face of the deep, tehom. Then Spirit, ruach, also feminine, vibrates over the deep, the fertile darkness, and co-creation begins. 

Life as we know it would not have come into being without incubation, germination and gestation in fertile darkness. All creation comes from tehom. 

Our bodies would not exist without the fertile darkness of our mothers’ wombs. We were formed in watery darkness and had to adjust to the light. Living in darkness was our first home. As I’ve reflected on this truth, one of my favorite Rilke poems came to mind, and I heard it in a new way. Rilke writes: 

You, darkness, of whom I am born–
I love you more that the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illuminates
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations–just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.

You darkness of whom we are all born. We need the darkness before we need the light. 

Like the nasturtiums in my front yard, much plant life would not exist without the fertile darkness of the soil. Volunteer seeds find their way into dark spaces after falling to the ground. They know that they need the darkness in order to grow. 

While working on this sermon I reached out to Hanneke, another seasoned gardener in our congregation, to brainstorm about seeds and darkness. One thing that she observed is that many seeds are pale and their time in the darkness allows them to develop the pigments needed to deal with the intensity of the sun. They aren’t immediately ready for the light, just as our bodies need months in the womb to prepare for birth. 

But I don’t just think we need darkness at the beginning of our lives, we need seasons and cycles of fertile darkness. Our bodies need to hibernate like seeds, drawing nutrients from our surroundings and waiting for the conditions in which to re-emerge. Or, put another way, we need to be submerged in the deep, in tehom, trusting that we are co-creating with the Spirit. 

What is it that you need in this time of fertile darkness? What type of nurture do you long for in body and soul? What does our congregation need in this time of fertile darkness? 

Personally and collectively we are holding many questions about who we will become and what will become of our world. We feel the chaos and the mystery, as well as the grief and loss and need for rest. We feel the possibility of societal change, along with personal transformation and healing. We are submerged in the depths of tehom. 

As Rilke says:   

the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations–just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

The fertile darkness lets us imagine the Spirit vibrating through us… inviting us into the never ending dance of co-creation. 

During this season of Advent may we return to the nurturing darkness of whom we are born, trusting the wisdom of our bodies and the Spirit to sustain us. Amen.