A couple of years ago, I became totally enamored with the idea of beautiful darkness. I was listening to an Alexader Shaia on a podcast about the intersection of Celtic religious traditions and Christianity, the influence of one on the other. My sister had sent me the podcast; she is such a perfect sister to me. I am weird, and nerdy and often an over opinionated pain in the ass; and she sends me these types of things, gently inviting me to join her in testing out ideas that have the potential to become beautiful lived truths. Alexander Shaia explains the development of the Christmas Feast as an integration of the Winter Solstice. Celtic religion celebrated the Winter Solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year with the expectation that soon the light would begin to grow. It takes three days of these long nights before we are able to perceive a growth in the minutes of day light. In the podcast, Shaia explains;
“Christianity wants to teach us at this moment one of our deepest spiritual practices. And this is the power of Christmas, that we know that every time in our personal, or in our collective, in our community, or our family life, when we go to the deepest dark that that is where the fresh radiance, the grace of the fresh radiance will come forth in us by our courage to walk to the place of the deepest dark…The deepest dark is not the place that grace goes to die, but the deepest dark is the place that grace goes to be reborn.”
After three days of cold darkness, their is birth, there is light, but we can’t skip those three days as much as we might like to.
In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbra Brown Taylor’s poetic writing lets us in on her journey of exploring the darkness. I love that she wrote an entire book on this. There is always this nagging little voice in my head that tells me I am so strange for having these types of questions or thoughts that I can’t shake. But nope…someone else did, and wrote an entire book about it and someone else thought enough people would buy and it was published, so there are at least three of us. I am not alone in my nagging questions. She writes about going deep into a cave and spending time in the consuming darkness, her thoughts drifting to Jesus’s body in a tomb, sealed off from light by a stone, in darkness; “As many years as I’ve been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” Darkness is an essential part of the story of salvation.
All of this brings me to one small thing I can add to this conversation. A couple weeks ago, my kids were out of school and like any good nerdy mom faced with bad weather and no school, I decide to take my three kids to tour an old gold mine about an hour from our house. Our guide lead us down a side tunnel and asked us to all have a seat. He began to talk about the candles the miners used, having to pair up to make sure they had a candle to light their way out of the tunnel at the end of the shift. He then told us he was going to turn off the lights. I grabbed my kids and whispered “It’s going to be totally dark. Stay close.” I’ve been in a dark cave two other times in my life. The darkness is consuming, heavy. Waving your hand in front of your face and only perceiving the slight movement of air but nothing visually is unsettling to say the least. I know I’ll be ok, but there is a decent chance my kids might get really scared.
The lights went out and I squeezed my people. My skin took over and beautifully discerned the pressure of the three of them against my legs, arms and hands. It was dark, silent, and still; but I was absolutely certain they were with me. No one moved. No one panicked. The lights stayed off and we breathed. We took in the darkness. It was still and silent other than the faint drip of water. Under all those layers of dirt and stone, I could perceive nothing from the world above us that was bathed in light. In that moment, the gift shop filled with gems and candy seemed as far away as the moon. After a few moments, the guide lit a small candle and began again with words to explain mining. I was a bit shocked that my kids, who demand all kinds of gentle night lights, were totally fine. And I was as well.
In the total absence of light, it was the four of us together that made us all ok. Not just ok, but safe to breathe and experience the darkness with curiosity, with patience. Maybe in our metaphorical darkness, having ones we can pull close, or ones who pull us close keeps us steady. When the lights fade and our vision fails, it’s the felt sense of another that powerfully reminds us that we are not alone, that we can wait for the light to return, and while we wait, they are with us. The ones close to us can’t learn for us; nor we for them. They can’t rescue us from the things that block the light. The strength that comes from the closeness of others allows us to learn for ourselves. I learned that my lungs care nothing about the light. They drew in the cool, damp, dark air just the same as they did when it was full of light. My skin and my ears came alive in the dark, in a way that felt intuitive and easy. I didn’t have to think or look to see my three people. I didn’t have to do a quick head count, my body simply knew they were all right there. Maybe the closeness of another allows us to learn what we need to learn in the dark in a way that isn’t so frightening. And maybe that is why Jesus’s birth and resurrection happen in the dark. Emmanuel, God with us, even in our darkness; especially in our darkness.
To listen to Alexander Shaia’s podcast with Rob Bell: https://robbell.podbean.com/e/alexander-shaia-on-the-mythic-power-of-christmas/