Dark night encroaches
a few fight back so bravely
clutching their candles.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” — Luke 21:36
Happy New Year! It seems like everyone has their own new year: there’s the Gregorian new year, which we’ll observe in a few months; the lunar new year, after that; The Russian Orthodox use the Julian calendar; the Jews have Rosh Hashannah; In Thailand there’s Songkran; In Iran, New Year’s Day is March 21; even trees have their own new year at Tu B’Shevat. But, today is our new year.
Like creation itself, we begin in the dark. It is literally a dark time: It is dark when I leave for work, and dark when I get home. It is metaphorically dark too, though. Millions of people are displaced, hungry, wounded, their lives shattered by the dark forces of this world. In the USA we face the near-daily threat of domestic terrorism, while fearing even more the terrorist we haven’t met yet. The other terror, the one we seldom address, is the terror of being one paycheck away. There are so many people fighting against one another, and for so many reasons, that it’s hard to figure out which side we should be on! I don’t think I am being too dramatic when I say that these are very dark times.
Yet, this morning we will go to church and engage in a revolutionary act: We will light a candle. In this one act we say that we will not be defined by the darkness, we will confound it!
It is easy to think of Advent as a time of quietness, waiting in anticipation of Jesus’s birth. That can be a comforting way to gently involve ourselves in the greatest story ever told. But these are dark times, and I am not sure we have the luxury of a comforting Advent. The candle by the still empty creche has to become a torch in the dark night; not whispering “o come, o come, Emanuel,” but declaring that the light of God is still burning brightly!
In Genesis the light had to be separated from the darkness, because the darkness couldn’t stand it. God did not eradicate the darkness, though. He protected it.
Later, in the days of Noah, darkness ruled the earth in some of the same ways that it does today. God decided that this time he would eradicate violence by using the violence of the flood. That turned out so badly that God promised never to do it again and darkness returned to the earth.
As a stop-gap measure God decided that once a year all the darkness could be placed on the head of a goat and that the divine light could find a way to shine in that moment of scapegoating. Humans have been scapegoating one another ever since, and violence is still our only way of implementing it. The violent scapegoating society that we have built depends on having an identifiable enemy, someone to blame. We have to engage in some kind of battle for the victim of the hour, against the enemy de jour. And, crazy as it sounds, that system has been working pretty well. It holds things together. We are clear about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.
But this is a dark time, and the darkness makes it hard to see. Here is what Thomas Hobbs said about the kingdom of darkness, “[it] is nothing else but a confederacy of deceivers that, to obtain dominion over men in this present world, endeavor, by dark and erroneous doctrines, to extinguish in them the light.”
I know I talked about the devil last week, but I’m going to talk about it again. The Satan, the devil, Leviathan, as Hobbs called it, is not a red man with horns and a tail. It is, rather, as Hobbs describes it, a confederacy of deceivers. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but there is afoot such a confederacy. It accuses, it lies, and it tries to extinquish the light. That sounds a lot like the devil to me.
Most of us are so confused that we’re not sure who the enemy is or who to blame! If there’s a victim, we’re for them; if somebody shoots, we’re against them. Every day there is some shiny new thing for us to be for or against. We may engage in this kind of thing because we want to be well-informed, or we want to do something positive; but the truth is that it doesn’t accomplish anything except keeping us in constant battle mode. If you don’t believe me, just go to Facebook.
And so we find ourselves in “that day,” when the sun is darkened; and we are dealing with “these things,” which keep us so worked up. That very useful system, the one that has been holding things together for us, is no longer working. It’s THAT day; the day when every thing is crazy, nothing works like it should, things that should be light look dark, and things that should be shining in the sky are falling down! It’s all topsy-turvy… In the world, maybe in your own life, maybe both!
When Jesus talks about “that day,” and “those things,” it is possible that he was referring to something a little closer to home than the destruction of Jerusalem or a literal return on a puff of cloud. If we go forward a few verses Luke recalls a soliloquy of Jesus in which he defines those things and that day as “the days of vengeance.” In other words, the days of having an enemy and exacting revenge. It’s a system we are all too familiar with.
If we go back a few verses, we can contrast the days of vengeance with something else attributed to Jesus: “In patience/endurance possess your souls.” You could also say, Be steadfast, don’t participate in the systems of blame and revenge, this disciplined refusal to participate is what will enable you to wait lovingly for God. When you do that, you will gain the light of life.
It is hard, I know, not to spout off, or at least have strong opinions, about the things that are going on in the world today. I am not saying that we shouldn’t be informed, or that we shouldn’t have opinions. I am saying that we should remember that the victim is no more innocent than the perpetrator, and the perpetrator is no more guilty than the victim.
God tried to eradicate violence with violence. If it didn’t work for God, why would it work for us? The wheat and the tares grow up together. Let them be sorted at the harvest, not through our own violent tearing them out of the ground.
The inclination to do violence is strong, but “That day, ” and “these things” require gentleness, restraint, the keeping of our souls. As we enter Advent, be sober and alert. Don’t let yourself get caught up in blame, revenge, violence. And light your candle. Hold it high.
God hides in winter
Glory obscured by violence
hold your candle high
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China.
New Year Celebrations Around the World
Genesis 1:2 – and darkness hovered over the face of the deep.
John 1:5 – …and the darkness comprehended it [the light] not.
Thomas Hobbs, Leviathan, Part IV – Part IV is actually named Kingdom of Darkness.
Luke 21:22 – For these be the days of vengeance.
Luke 21:19 – In patience/endurance possess your souls. Simon Weil wrote about this type of
endurance and said that it is the opposite of vengeance, of being part of the system in which violence begets violence. Her’s was an impassive patience, more like waiting, though we might do more.
Genesis 9:15 – Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
Matthew 13:29,30 – while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest.