Each year around this time, I look out my office window on a wintry late afternoon and morosely note to myself how early it is getting dark these days. This is one of the delights of living in the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Sixteen hours of frigid darkness a day. Hooray.
Of course, there is theological (and quite likely homiletical) hay to be made from this dreary reality. Advent is nearly upon us. A new Christian year is about to begin. Each year, the Christ child comes to us in the darkest time of the year. And our language is appropriately breathless. We speak of light sneaking in to dispel the darkness, goodness and hope slinking in amidst all the evil and despair, God-with-us determinedly drawing near all of our ugliness with the vaccine for our sin-sick world. Advent is where we look ahead to the hopeful truth of God entering our dark and diseased messes to bind up our wounds and turn us toward home. Yeah, that’ll preach. Probably.
But each year around this time I confess that I occasionally find it easy to respond to all this breathless language with something like a weary sigh. Yes, fine, this is all well and good. But what we really need is actually rather more simple. A bit less darkness, if you please. Less terror and fear, less human misery, less retributive violence, less dysfunction and greed, less dementia and cancer, less poverty and hatred, less misunderstanding and ignorance, less sin and stupidity, less chaos and catastrophe… We need fewer stories of falling-apart people in falling-apart places. It’s great that Jesus enters the darkness each year, greater still that he comes to us at the darkest times (of our years and our lives). But it would be a great deal more convenient if the darkness would, you know, just go away.
A few weeks ago, I spent some time in a Sunday sermon on the prominence of “lament” in Scripture and its necessity in a world so saturated with darkness. I have encountered few descriptions (and examples) of lament equal to this one found in Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic.
(The context is a discussion of the many inadequate attempts—theological, philosophical, mystical—to explain what suffering is doing in a world presumably supervised by a loving and powerful God.)
But the obscurity of these unverifiable guesses at God’s absolutely obscure operations takes us further and further away from the emotions that motivated them. Why is the world unjust? Why does my brilliant friend have a brain tumour? Why is my child disabled? Why is my disabled child dying in pain and confusion before her fifth birthday, despite the best that medicine can do?
I never heard of anyone being comforted by Kabbala or by ingenious secret truths, or by the negation of negation—or even feeling that they had been substantially answered by these things. You get more bang for your money, emotionally speaking, if you just howl, and kick as hard as you can at the imagined ankles of the God of everything, for it is one of His functions, and one of the ways in which He’s parent-like, to be the indestructible target for our rage and sorrow, still there, still loving, whatever we say to Him.
Yes, this is surely one of God’s functions. To be still there. Even—or maybe especially—in the darkness.