Far from fleeting: Finding in darkness

(Unsplash / Winston Chen)

In early November, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, I went to visit my grandmother. Driving up her street, I stopped a few houses down from hers, put my car in park, and turned off my headlights. I gazed out my window at the most unusual sight.

The houses lining the street were illuminated — not only from within but by thousands of tiny lights outside. The whole street was glowing. Trees and bushes; front doors and gutters. I basked in the glow on a dark autumn night; my eyes transfixed by the light.

"It's too early for Christmas lights," I thought to myself. Too early, yet most welcome. After months of darkness and an unusually rainy fall, any light, especially the inexplicable, would do.

Like shepherds stunned in the field or a young Mary stopped suddenly in the everyday, I basked in the glow. God has curious means of communication.

After months of waiting on officials to grant permits for a ministry project and accompanying months of frustrated wondering why — Why here? Why now? Why me? — a moment had come on that dark street … an invitation by an unexpected route … a moment without an actual answer and yet filled with reassurance that somewhere, somehow darkness could also hold light.

Arriving at my grandmother's house, I wondered aloud with more gratitude now than grievance at the displays, "Why all the Christmas lights?"

My grandmother smiled, as grandmothers do with love and deep knowing, and responded, "It's Diwali!"

Now if you're a little sketchy in your recollection of Hindu holidays, here's a quick synopsis: Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights. Simply put, it symbolizes the spiritual "victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance."

The story varies based on where one comes, from but it has come to signify new beginnings and a welcoming of wealth and prosperity, when families use lights to drive out the darkness and open their homes to let in good fortune and new beginnings.

On my way home that night, all I could see was the beautiful glow of the lights, myself in the darkness of the night in my car. My heart's interest was piqued by the description of this time as a celebration of light overcoming darkness, good triumphing over evil, and knowledge usurping ignorance.

And now as this new year begins, I can't help but again envision that darkness and light, forces tenderly and tenuously balanced at this time of year: a darkness never dark enough to overtake the light, but also a light that is beyond our knowing.

This is a light beyond our recollection at times, the One who dwells among us — not beyond us — to whom darkness is not dark, and through whom light shines in new and wondrous ways.

Sitting in the still, silent, darkness of my car, I could see the light. From outside, we can bask in its glow and appreciate its being, whereas from within those houses what is without is lost. And thinking of this moment in our world and the darkness that returns, I recall of the words of Rilke, whose poetry returns over and over to the life that can be found in the darkness.  

In his Book of Hours, Rilke proclaims the gift of the darkness, recognizing that far more is covered by darkness than light. "The dark embraces everything: shapes and shadows, creatures and me … just as they are," he writes, "It lets me imagine a great presence stirring beside me."

Darkness is a welcome companion if we greet it as such. This nighttime is not too dark if we sit with it, letting our eyes adjust and discover the outlines of grace around us. In this stillness of time, the night embraces everything; its darkness holds tight to all that we are and asks us to notice all that is and was, and to try to perceive, if we can, what could be.

In the darkness, God works. Like the Spirit over the waters of creation or the Israelites crossing the sea to freedom, the Christ child comes in the night. What stands out to me this year more than others is all those who wait in the darkness.

These are the ancillary characters of the Christmas story; those who if you asked them would tell their story with themselves at the center but who, as we read it, are the ones who point us towards the great light.

It is because they are there waiting and attentive that they are able and available to follow the light. It is the shepherds who work through the night, who cower in fear at the sight of angels calling them forth.

It is the wise men, who in order to answer the call — to do their part — must journey by starlight, must be attentive to the darkness. They must choose to feel in their souls the call of unexpected routes. They must acquiesce to the Spirit and open themselves to the promise of the unknown … a promise that is full of hope but requires great faith and will entail whatever life brings.

It is these figures who give us guidance for welcoming Christ into our lives and moving our way into the new year.

Their journeys are not without questioning — What child is this? Or without fear and trembling or threat to life and liberty. Yet they follow faithfully, they trust and put one foot in front of the other, believing that the light they've seen in darkness is a promise of more. Their waiting is not for naught; their endurance is not an exercise in futility.

They must trust the moments of light, just as we are called to do.

Bishop Mariann Budde, diocesan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., reflected in her Christmas Eve sermon this year on how God's love and light are revealed in small things and fleeting moments, the things easily missed if we aren't paying attention.

"Our God works quietly, in and through human beings, in those amazing moments when an ordinary life shines with extraordinary brightness, when our hearts are warmed by gentle gifts of forgiveness and peace," she reflected in the sermon heard at the National Cathedral by, among many others, President Donald Trump.

"This gift from God, by design, is a fleeting experience. It gives us a moment, not a lifetime, of clarity; a moment, not a lifetime, of joy or the capacity to bring joy to another. … Christ comes to change us, slowly, over time, so that we might live according to the glimpses of love we have known. The gift is no less real for its fleeting beauty, although we do have the perfect of alibi of deniability if we don't want to acknowledge the gift for what it is."

The fleeting moments of light matter as they give light and direction to our lives. Yet these moments are easily lost. Squeezed out by the crunch of time or dismissed in the shadow of doubt or inconvenience, these moments beckon us to hold tight to the truth that underlies them.

For a split second, heaven touches earth. Clarity is amplified, and in the very next moment a question arises: Will we carry that momentarily timeless light into the expansive darkness that surrounds us? Will we live as if we've basked in the Christ-light, or not?

That it seems is the question we bear as take stock of the epiphany moments of our lives.

It's those moments that shine light into the darkness. And it is the people and situations in our lives that offer the such light — fleeting though it may be — who light the pathway before us.

We reflect the light of those who have shown us the way. And it is by their example and sheer grace that we walk in faith through the darkness, bearers of the light in unbearable times as poet Jan Richardson writes.

That is the moment we find ourselves in now. Now more than ever, we must cherish and lift up the moments that direct us for miles beyond their shining. We must fortify the space within where we hold their truth so that no amount of fear, doubt or complacency can dull their memory or potency. We must witness to the many people who carry the light despite the darkness, who have followed the light to our borders, who speak out in the face of the darkness of racism and hatred, who refuse to let the darkness take over.

Just as the magi learned from the journey, so must we. They not only followed stars, but they followed their hearts, trusting their dreams and their intuition, giving way to the wisdom planted deep within and available enough to be stirred by the Spirit. That is the invitation to us at the dawn of this new year, not to dismiss the darkness but to embrace it, to discover what it reflects back to us about the world and our being, and to bring to it the Christ-light moments that our lives are called to reflect even in the darkest of nights.

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.]

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.