Waiting in the Dark – Br. Curtis Almquist

Luke 2:1-20

In the beginning, for all of us, we were enwombed in darkness. And though some chil­dren, as they grow up – perhaps even some of us here – learned to be afraid of the dark and of “things that go bump in the night,” our experience of life begins in the safety and security of the darkness of our mother’s womb.

Each night in the monastery we sing some lullaby Psalms to complete the day. There is a very consoling prayer image in one of these Psalms: “Hide us under the shadow of your wings .” [1] The safety of God’s shadowing. The Psalmist here is appealing to this innate sense of security and nurture that darkness may to someone or something, or if someone or something is being exposed to us . Sometimes we’re not ready to know, and so, for the time being, it seems safer to be kept a bit in the dark. I remember, as a young adolescent, hearing from my parents the story, the full story, about one of our relatives. Of course, I had known this relative all of my 13 years or so, but I had never been – shall I say – ”enlightened” about this relative’s very complicated life. My parents had finally thought I was ready to know the truth… and I remember being both glad for their trust and, at the same time, rather dis­heartened because the light had been turned onto some of our family history. I now saw things that I would have just as soon not have known. This experience, which likely many of you here will also know, is what the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas calls “the wound of knowledge.” You cannot not know what you come to know. well bring. Light is very revealing and exposing… and sometimes we are not ready for the exposure: whether we are being exposed

In the Psalms there are these dual, complementary images of light and darkness that often come in tandem. There is the sense that we need both: both to be sheltered in darkness by “the shadow of God’s wings,” to be rested in the darkness of night, in the unknowing, and to be enlightened by God’s light. The psalmist prays, [2] But our experience of life, day by day, involves both light and darkness… and it is as true about the sky as it is about the soul. The soul needs the dark night to prepare it for the dawning of the enlightened day. In God’s eyes, no matter our age, we are and always will be children , children of God. And children are not developmentally ready to know everything at once. There is this sense of a needed pace and progression about coming to know and coming to be known. Some­times, I think, God hides us from what we are not yet ready to know. God keeps us in the dark. There are those very re-assuring words in Psalm 139: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” [3] “It is you who light my lamp; the Lord , my God, lights up my darkness.”

In the Christmas gospel there are many people named, quite a diverse lot, and yet we discover in them a common theme… of waiting . Virtually everyone is waiting. Mary is wait­ing. Jo­seph is waiting. The uncle and aunt, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are waiting. The God­parents, Symeon and Anna, are waiting. There are also shepherds who are waiting. There are some sages from the east – “wisemen” – who are waiting. The govern­ment – particularly Herod the Tetrarch – is waiting, rather anxiously. All of these people have some sense of what is com­ing, that is, what is coming to them from God – what God is calling them to do or be or bear or birth – and yet, for the time being, they are mostly waiting. We hear them saying to them­selves, “How can these be?” “How will we know?” “How will we recognize the sign?” Even, in moments of desperation, saying to them­selves, “What good can come out this?” They have a seed of knowledge, what is coming to them from God, and meanwhile they are mostly waiting in the dark, which is as it was in the beginning… for us all, and is now for many, and ever shall be, at least for some.

God waits for us to be ready, for “the eyes of our hearts” to be enlightened. [4] But, I would say, God also waits on us in the face and form of Jesus at Bethlehem . God stoops to us. Waiting conforms us to the image of God, who waits. We have been created in the image of God who is a waiter. God waits with us, until we are ready, like a parent or teacher waiting for a child to mature. God knows what we do not know. The beams of enlightenment that we can bear, God will dawn on us when we are ready. And in the mean time we wait, we must wait, and until we are ready, until the fullness of time has come. To use the language of the Psalms, we are “like watchmen waiting for the morning.” [5]

There is this wonderful sign in the dark that is pictured in Psalm 119: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” [6] Of course, the particular source of light that the psalmist uses here is not a megawatt arc beam like you might see shining down the runway of Boston ‘s Logan Airport . Here the image of light is that of an oil lamp. The light of the flick­er­ing wick enlightens the path ahead, but probably only one step at a time It is a small light, sufficient for enlightening what is next… but only that… which may be a real source of encouragement about both the light and the darkness of our lives. Our God, who is light, will give us the beams of light that we need and can bear, and will keep us in the dark for what we are not ready to see and know. This is God, enwombing us, a God for whom the night is as bright as the day.

Some of us likely rose very early this morning in the darkness that precedes dawn. We have shared the light of this beautiful winter day, and then the intermingling of light and dark­ness in the shadows near dusk, then twilight, and now again the deep night. It is like an icon of life. This season of your life, it may well be just as important for you to see God in those bright, sunny places of your life – those places of joy and satisfaction and thankfulness – as it is for you to see God in those darkened places, where you suffer (maybe secretly) and long, and where you wonder how you can ever make it, and where you must wait, which can be the most marvelous time of gestation. We worship God Emmanuel, God With Us, in the day and in night of life, a God who exposes us to as much as we can bear, and who hides us under a winged shadow from what we are not ready to see or know, where we must wait, perhaps leave behind, or leave undone, or leave unanswered… at least for now.

There are no few occasions when I have witnessed a parent or godparent or sibling tucking a little child into bed, saying good night. And so often times there will be a last question, the little child needing to know just one more thing. Sometimes the child’s question is actually about some thing, and at other times, more often it seems, the question is just to keep the parent or sibling present for a little longer there in the darkened room. And I’ve often seen the parent bend over the bed and give a final kiss and say something like, “Honey, don’t worry, it’ll be okay,” or maybe, “My love, you need to sleep now and we’ll talk about this tomorrow or some other time.” And then leave the child, consoled, in the silent night, what Dylan Thomas calls “the close and holy darkness.” [7]

I suspect this is true for most all of us here: There are so many things you do not know about what tomorrow may bring, and even with the best of education, best of knowledge, best of counsel, best of security, best of healthcare, none of us is omniscient or omnipotent. Life, from the start, leaves us quite vulnerable. This is something we have in common with all others – with those of every race and religion and culture and language. We are all quite vulnerable, and we all have quite similar needs. In this season of your own life, you may find it a real gift to pray to God, in your own words, your own acknow­ledg­ment of what you now know, which seems important or clear… and also to pray an acknow­ledg­ment that God knows what you do not know. And do know that God is waiting for you, waiting with you, waiting on you… and others, alike. God, in God’s time and in God’s way, will let you know what you can be and bear and birth: God, living in light inaccessible, in whom there is no darkness at all.

[1] Psalm 17:8.

[2] Psalm 18:28 .

[3] Psalm 139:11-12.

[4] A phrase from Ephesians 1:18.

[5] Psalm 130:5.

[6] Psalm 119:105.

[7] Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales (New York: New Directions, 1954), n.p. For the full text, see: https://www.bfsmedia.com/MAS/Dylan/Christmas.html

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  1. MAIDA W BROUDO on December 21, 2018 at 04:03

    Thank you so very much dearest Brother Curtis…..what a lovely sermon….which I read, ironically at 4:00 am, in the darkness, because I can’t sleep….I love the idea of the light coming in, as we are ready, in God’s time….

    Much love this Christmastide,


  2. Harriet on December 18, 2018 at 06:44

    Waiting in the dark is not easy yet in the pre-dawn darkness, I find a quiet solitude that is comforting. Perhaps it is as you say…

    Thank you for your superb sermons. I look forward to ones written by you.

  3. Margaret Dungan on November 16, 2014 at 15:56

    Thank you B.r.Curtis for framing ,waiting, in such a wonderful way,

  4. Jennifer Phillips on December 9, 2013 at 12:36

    Thank you Curtis. As one of the fortunate children who loved the womb of the dark, especially around Christmas when outside there were little lights on the shrubs, and for whom the words of Dylan Thomas always resonated, and still do – I think of the relationship between waiting and desire that the poet Anne Carson explored so eloquently. There can’t be desire without a space of unfulfillment and waiting – that makes room for both anguish and joy to happen in the process of expectation and longing. And so in this season of Advent.

  5. Lynn Harrington on December 9, 2013 at 09:39

    Just what I needed! Thank you for your wisdom.

  6. Merrill Ann Gonzales on December 17, 2011 at 13:38

    When I was young I couldn’t see. But in my powerlessness I learned to wait. In my waiting the years have opened my eyes to see what GOD has done what I could never have done or even imagined. In the Song of Solomon … don’t wake love till it chooses…. and I am thankful.

  7. DLa Rue on December 17, 2011 at 13:32

    I”m curious what the second paragraph is trying to say, it looks as if something got omitted at the end, and it seems potentially important….

    I’ve been referring this series to two young scholars who find themselves under pressure and in some confusion over the ways they need to prioritize their lives to do their work well, and to be able to work with advisors or instructors in a manner consistent with the work.

    With the retraction of support for serious academic work a constant possibility, those called to such work find themselves more and more challenged, and must fight off fear, worry and confusion as they try to fashion a life for themselves that is often tangled and necessarily enmeshed in other aspects of salaried work when their vocational topics are not in demand or paying as well as one might wish.

    Hope, prayer, and wisdom such as this is a welcome service we all offer to each other.

  8. Barbara Davis on December 17, 2011 at 10:05

    Thanks to Br. Curtis for this sermon on waiting and for being with us at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia recently. It was a joy. Barbara Davis

  9. Fr. Bruce Baker on December 17, 2011 at 09:04

    Your homily reminded me of Rev. 3:20: If you hear my voice and open the door . . . I will come in to you and eat with you . . .” Perhaps God’s experience of time is the waiting between God’s knock and our opening the door. God takes the initiative and waits on our response.

    Christ is Born! Glorify Him.

  10. Polly Chatfield on December 17, 2011 at 08:13

    Thank you, Curtis, for these words of comfort. I find doing easy, helpful and waiting quite difficult. As i get older i want so much to know that my children and grandchildren will be all right as their life goes on when i am gone – and there is nothing i can do about it. Their future has to be under the shadow of God’s wings, and i must just wait out my time in hope. Your reminder is salutary – to be grateful for the now I am in.

  11. Liz Goodyear Jones on December 17, 2011 at 06:33

    Dearest Curtis,
    You remain one of the most beautiful of the voices speaking for God in my world. I am now a head of school in Long Beach, MS, down on the Mississippi Gulf coast. I still have yours and Kevin’s sermons from clergy conference so long ago. Thank you for the love of Christ you bear to me and to others. You are in my prayers and in my heart. Rev. Liz (I’m actually Miss Reverend Liz (run altogether!)

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