Sermon: Practices of Darkness

Matthew 2:1-22

For four weeks during Advent, we dwelt in the dark. We encouraged each other to rest there, to embrace it as fertile and magnificent. As the place from which new birth comes.

And then, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary was awakened by an angel, who told her she would birth the Divine into the world. And then, we said on Christmas Eve: The Divine Child has been born! Glory to God in the highest!  We ended our Christmas Eve service with this benediction: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.” 

And then, today on Epiphany, we sing: “Arise your light has come!” And we tell the story of the coming of the light of Christ to all people through the story of the magi that we just heard. The story is meant to say: Even non-Jews, even these strangers from the East, these astrologers (who practiced magical arts that were seen as dangerous to Jewish people of the time) even they see the star in the sky and know that a Divine Light has come into the world.

But let’s not fool ourselves: It is still dark. Most of the story we just heard takes place in the dark — it is night when the magi first see the star; it is night when they first see the Divine child; and it is night when they receive a message in a dream. It is still dark. You know that from the way streetlights come on at 5 p.m. these days, from the 14 1/2 hours of darkness each night. It is still dark. We are going into our third year of a pandemic. And the political and ecological and spiritual and, perhaps, personal problems we face are just as present and may not be going away anytime soon.

And there are still lessons to be learned from this darkness. Still lessons that we can only learn from the darkness. Many people in the Bible get their guidance from dreams — Joseph, Jacob, Daniel, Solomon, and Joseph, husband to Mary. The Spirit often speaks to us from the darker corners, from the shadowy margins, from middle-of-the night insights, from hunches or intuitions that arise when we hover between wakefulness and sleep. My Dad would often go to bed thinking about a problem at work. When he woke up at 3 a.m., the answer to that problem or some insight into it was often there, ready, waiting for him. He learned to be grateful for those middle-of-the-night wakenings.  I think this is because at night, in the dark, during sleep or on the verge of it, our rational minds take a back seat. Instead of bearing down on a problem, trying to figure it out, using our much-valued reason, we surrender to unconsciousness. And in that darkness, something that our rational mind couldn’t have created on its own can be born, can come into the light of consciousness. In that darkness, something bigger than us can work through us. 

There are still lessons to be learned from the darkness. In fact, I believe that the whole of the spiritual journey is to learn to surrender more and more to the Spirit, to this Something Bigger that can work through us when we can turn down our rational minds enough. In depth psychology, and especially in the work of Carl Jung (who has been so formative to my understanding of Christian faith), we mature into whole selves by surrendering more and more to the greater wisdom coming up from our unconscious, from our non-rational or more-than-rational selves.  (And, as we explored during Lent, sometimes what comes up from our unconscious is repressed stuff from our shadow that needs to be looked at. It is its own kind of dark wisdom.)

That’s why, even when the light starts returning, we need practices of darkness. The magi studied the night sky and the stars; they listened to their dreams.  We, too, need practices that allow us to put our rational minds in the back seat, that allow a bigger wisdom to drive us, to move through us and, like Mary, bring something to birth in us. 

What are your practices of darkness? For me, they have included working with my dreams, or meditating, or creative writing, especially poetry. Sermon writing, for me, is also such a practice. I do my rational work, the work done in the light of day — I read and research and study the text — but then I take a deep breath, say a prayer, relax my mind and try to allow what’s coming up from a deeper, darker place to speak.

Prayer and worship and ritual are practices of darkness. Many of you have told me that when we gather here things come up unexpectedly —- you find yourself crying about something that you didn’t even know was lodged in your psyche. Or maybe an unexpected joy or gratitude arises. Music — or really any art — is a practice of darkness. Physical exertion, dancing, yoga can be.  Lectio divina or Scripture study or “holy reading” can be. Every time I read something about cosmology, my rational mind gets blown and a deeper truth about the universe and our place within it comes into consciousness. What are your practices of darkness?

Because we need practices of darkness. We are not going to be able to do the work of personal and societal transformation that is necessary unless we are accessing dark wisdom, unless the Spirit guides us. I don’t believe we can reason our way into transformation.  Spiritual teacher Richard Rohr puts it this way: 

If we do not discover a prayer practice that “invades” our unconscious and reveals what is hidden (this is what I’m calling a practice of darkness), we will actually change very little over our lifetime… When you meditate consistently (or do, again, what I’m calling a practice of darkness), a sense of your autonomy and private self-importance—what you think of as your “self”—falls away, little by little, as unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that you likely think of as your only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of your mind…. You become less and less interested in protecting this self-created, relative identity. You don’t have to attack it; it calmly falls away of its own accord and you experience a kind of natural humility.

If your (practice) goes deep, “invading” your unconscious, as it were, your whole view of the world will change from fear to connection, because you don’t live inside your fragile and encapsulated self anymore… you move from ego consciousness to soul awareness, from being fear-driven to being love-drawn….

Of course, you can only do this if Someone Else is holding you, taking away your fear, doing the knowing…  If you can allow that Someone Else to have their way with you, you will live with a new vitality, a natural gracefulness, and inside of a Flow that you did not create. It is actually the Life of  (God), spinning and flowing through you.

I think of Mary as the role model of this process. When the angel Gabriel visited her and told her she would bear the Divine Child into the world, we see her moving from fear to Love; we see her allowing that Life of God to flow through her, to birth the Light of God into the world through her. 

So, as we celebrate the arrival of the light, let’s also continue to embrace the darkness and what it can teach us. And may the Spirit guide us this year. May we release our fears and move more and more into the heart of love. May God hold us, as we continue to allow Her Spirit to flow through us. Amen.