Dec 8, 2017
The title of this morning’s sermon is “Into the Dark of the Night.” It is December, the first Sunday of Advent, and there are eighteen days until the longest night of the year. In a town like Ashby, in a state such as Massachusetts, I suspect that during days of the late autumn and winter the long nights are very dark. I imagine that when we gather to light the Christmas tree on the common this afternoon the sun will be on the cusp of setting and the sky, the sky... the sky will be edging towards pitch.
The start of Advent is the best time of year to contemplate the dark of the night. The dark of the night... winter... There’s too little sunlight, too many grey days and seeming unending nights. Some days I get to my office at Harvard before the sun peaks out between sludge clouds and leave after the day star’s rays have disappeared. I bike home in the ice cold, pass through dim streets, and arrive in a chilled apartment just as the radiators kick on. The next morning it is hard to get out of bed to greet a day with little light or little warmth. And so it goes... the end of November, December, January, the long curse that is February, the false hope of March, and, finally, the bright promise of April.
The winter months are not without hope. There are tonight’s bright Christmas tree lights. There are the flames of the menorah. The shamus glows in the center. Each night more lights move in from the edges until at last the branched brass or oil globes or treed silver shines nine strong against evening’s lack. There’s Kwanzaa with its seven candled kinara. Each wax dipped wick represents a community principle. In all, the dark of December contains at least half a month of sacred light.
The holidays are not the only hope to be found in the dark months. One morning soon we will awaken and discover the world a perfect blanket of quiet crystalline white. The day might become a quick sled ride down a long hill; a misshapen snowball thumping wetly against a woolen coat or nylon jacket; a fort or lumpy sculpture that arises from damp and thick winter flakes; or—or is it and?—a mug of steaming mulled cider or, better, hot chocolate resting on the kitchen counter. Humans signs of warmth and creativity against the season’s harshness.
It is during the winter months that I come to know most fully a simple truth: we need each other to survive the dark of the night. This truth is matched by another: we never know for certain what will come out of night’s darkness. This first Sunday of Advent, let us sit awhile and pull at these adjacent two truths. We need each other to survive. We never know for certain what will come out of the dark of the night.
The ordinary hope of winter is predicated upon understanding these two truths. Where I live, enduring the coldest season requires a certain amount of faith that the basic fabric of society will continue to be tended to no matter how brutal the ice and snow. It also requires acceptance that winter plans are never quite reliable. How many times have you gone to bed at night only to awaken in the morning to the news that the weather has rendered your world slightly different? Your power lines are down. Your child’s school is closed. The roads are impossible. The day’s agenda for work has been suddenly whited out.
Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, this interruption will be rendered moot. The roads will be plowed. Your neighbor will stop by with their snowblower. You will host a friend whose power is still out for dinner. The unpredictably of the weather will be made manageable by human sociality.
What is faith but the trust that difficult seasons, challenging epochs, will be overcome? That misery is not the entirety of the human condition? Certainly, the Christian promise of salvation is rooted in the hope that our terrestrial challenges are destined to be vanquished through the aid of the divine. In most Christian theological narratives the passing grotesquery of death is translated into the unceasing beauty of eternal life.
Such narratives may work for some of us, providing consolation when none might otherwise be found. For others, they may appear inadequate, illusory gossamer thrown over muck and mire. In either case, we can find some wisdom when we confront the dark of the night. Theodore Rothke’s poem reminds us of this.
His words, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” recall times of insomnia. It is three in the morning. Coming to consciousness suddenly, the night, the apartment, is pitch around me. In the distance, the city flickers, but in my bed, restless thoughts obscure the meager moon and the street’s luminous lamps. I arise troubled by some half-insight: a friendship that has become complicated, a worry about family, or the unceasing demands of academia--Did I phrase that claim right? Do my footnotes provide the evidentiary support for my argument? I agonize about what remains of our public life. A hastily passed tax bill, the possibility of new wars, the almost unending stench of old ones, epidemics, evidence of election interference, unchecked white supremacy, and rampant patriarchal violence all add to my sleeplessness. I brood about the human place in the universe and wonder: Where does my life fit in amongst the infinite oceanic vastness of space? I find myself and lose myself, a creature composed of star dust wondering about the stars. Does any of this ever happen to you? Do your eyes crop open when all the house is quiet? What wakens you then?
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas gave insomnia a central place in his thinking on how we come to know the other. In one of those overly dense passages that some philosophers love, he tells us: “Insomnia... tears away at whatever forms a nucleus, a substance of the same, identity, a rest, a presence, a sleep. Insomnia is disturbed by the other who breaks this rest...”
Out of the dark of the night comes something that disturbs our sleep. It may be the thought unbidden, the unexpected snow, or a set of bad dreams that crash us awake. All are knowledge that something exists beyond this self, this me, this creature trying to sleep. As Roethke put it, “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.”
Roethke’s poem and the insomnia of Levinas both relate to the famous religious idea articulated by the Spanish poet and mystic St. John of the Cross. He called it the dark night of the soul. It is the experience of crisis when it seems like the gloom of winter or the gloom of our lives will never end. At such moments, a deeper kind of spiritual insight than is usual might appear.
This morning we have been wending our way around three kinds of crises: the natural, the personal, and the social. Each is an opportunity to remember two truths it can be easy to forget: The world is ever unpredictable. We need each other to survive.
Winter in New England is an ever returning natural crisis. We build houses, drive in cars, and buy wool blankets to escape it. Perhaps I have said enough about the dark of winter already... It is what confronts us each year on the first Sunday of Advent. But just as it arrives we are reminded that year will turn again. 2017 will soon become 2018. Spring will arrive. Blue crocuses will crack through retreating films of ice. The natural crisis of winter will be replaced by spring. We do not know exactly what form the crisis of winter will take. We do know that surviving is a communal task, something that requires all of the infrastructure of our society.
The same lessons can be found in our periods of personal and social crisis. We never know what is coming out of the dark of the night. Most often, if we persist, we persist together, with the aid of our human fellows. We humans are social creatures, each of our selves formed, bolstered, and assisted by the other selves around us. What about you? How have you faced the crises in your life? Alone or with the aid of others?
Personal crises are always with us. We share our joys and sorrows each Sunday because of this enduring aspect of the human condition. Coming together on a Sunday morning makes it a little easier to cope with the tragedies, the crises, large and small that we find in our lives. Speaking of death in community reminds us that the love that is each of our lives will continue even after we have physically ceased to be. Sharing our concerns about illness or the lives of family and friends means that we do not have bear our burdens alone. Whatever comes out of the dark of the night we can gather on a Sunday morning assured that we are not alone.
We need each other during times of social crises just as much as we do when we face personal crises. And these days, it seems like social crises are ever with us. This autumn has been hard. This winter may be harder. The United States Congress just passed the most substantive tax bill in more than a generation. It was hastily pushed through the House and the Senate. It is still unclear what, exactly, it contains since it was passed without substantive public debate. It appears, however, to be a redistribution of wealth from poor and middle income people to the richest. It appears to be an assault on higher education. And it appears to be an attempt to raise the deficit in order to undermine the social safety net--Medicare and Social Security.
There are signs that the country could be headed towards an even larger crisis, a constitutional crisis. The news this week about Michael Flynn’s decision to cooperate with Special Counsel Mueller has made the prospect of the impeachment of President Trump more likely. And whether President Trump is impeached or not, the ongoing investigations into the 2016 election has led many to believe that the political institutions of the United States face disaster.
Whether you agree with my assessments of these social crises or not, I suspect that you will agree that these are difficult times across the globe. The philosopher Hannah Arendt has some words for us that come from an earlier epoch of social crises. She wrote them after living through World War II and witnessing the rise of Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism. She tells us: “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination... from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth... Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.”
I cannot sleep in peace.
The voices of nature speak
To the trouble hearts of men.
In the dark of the night, when we awake with insomnia, when we confront an unknown other, when we are called out of our sleepy selves, we can find comfort and illumination in our human fellows. When I awake to the gloom of winter or a personal crisis or a social one, I often turn to poetry. Art reminds me what others have faced and attempted to endure. Even so dour a poem as “Midnight” by the obscure Chinese poet Jen Jui provides a testament to the light we can offer each other in the dark of the night. Her light may have been a candle. It might have only burned for a moment and then been extinguished in sputtering smoke. But still, it was some slight glow and it reminds me that many others before me have struggled through social crises. Thus far, the human species, friendship, community, and beauty all continue.
We never really know what is coming out of the dark of the night. We need each other to survive it. My prayer for us this morning is simple. Will you join me in it?
Oh, all there is,
infinite whirl of star dust
and stellar light,
of which we are a part,
and which is so much greater
than any of us
or my meager words,
may we each remember
on this fine autumn morning,
and on all the mornings of our lives,
that no matter
what the dark of the night contains,
there is another truth,
that we are not alone
but each part
of the great human family
we name all souls.
Amen and Blessed Be.