Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
In those dark days, Mary visits Elizabeth. They both believe, have faith in what they can’t see or explain. They embrace. They see the light of each other’s countenance. They exclaim, bless and sing with joy and gratitude, with heartache and question: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary stays with Elizabeth about three months. Imagine the stories they told, the questions they shared, the listening and weeping. Imagine the shared encouragement, companionship, and loving countenance.
Darkness often brings to mind what we don’t know, what we don’t have, of danger and fear. Darkness is also a place safety, salvation, sight, and delight. At camp, youth would often settle in through the week, learning their surroundings and adjusting to not being flooded with light. They began to gaze at the stars and gathering to sing around a fire. Darkness offers safety to rest, play, explore, and sleep more soundly.
In scripture, God often speaks in the dark through dreams. In the dark, God’s people fled Egypt and went through the Red Sea. In the dark, manna came from heaven, divine food in the wilderness. God speaks, saves, and provides in the dark. We pray with the psalmist: “Hide us under the shadow of your wings.”[i] God’s shadow offers safety and nurture like under a wing or in the womb.
In Morning Prayer, we praise God for all creation in Canticle 12, including the “enfolding dark.”[ii] God often keeps us in the dark. We are not ready for the exposure light would bring. Jesus said: “I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.”[iii] The darkness of not knowing can be a grace.
Mary and Elizabeth bearing new life in their wombs, lived in the dark with uncertainty, shame and trouble, with promise, provision and faith. How may we live in the dark with uncertainty, trouble, promise, and faith? Here are two suggestions.
First, turn off the lights. Choose to be more in the dark. Use more candles and less electric light. Try using only candles, fireplace, the Christmas tree, and perhaps the light above the stovetop. Put down screens, and read by candlelight. Friends of mine do this with their kids all of Advent. They like it so much they continue through January. They enjoy sharing more dark together.
What is it like to see less? How does your perception change? What do you feel and do differently? Literally and figuratively, how does filling your home or life with artificial light hinder you? What do you not see because it is so bright? Are you trying to stay bright by focusing on appearances or clinging to possessions?
Let yourself be in the dark. Pray as you are, what you feel. Pray the questions and the longing. Trust God withholds what you cannot bear now. How might God be sheltering and enfolding? Look for lights given in the night, not that you turn on. Give thanks for twinkling grace.
Second, visit Elizabeth and welcome Mary. Find a safe, trustworthy person and share your heart. Perhaps someone who is having or has had a similar experience. Share together. Risk telling your story honestly. Share your questions, concerns, beliefs, hopes, longings, heartaches.
Be a safe, trustworthy person. Love others by listening well. Ask how they are. Hold hearts tenderly. Be a companion. Weep with those who weep. Sing with those who sing. Show the light of your countenance. Light up their life with your face of love.
The darkness deepens. Dark and more dark, and yet we can see. God is here with us speaking, providing, nurturing, and saving in the dark. With Mary, Elizabeth, and today’s companions, live by faith in the dark with twinkling and enfolding grace.
[i]Psalm 17:8 which we pray at Compline to begin each night
[ii]The Book of Common Prayer, p89
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