In our diocese, when we suddenly got the word in the week before Holy Week that we had to shut down our worship spaces, even from broadcasting from them before empty pews, it set up a mad scramble. My husband generously went up to our nave with me and helped me to pre-record the stripping of the altar so that we could use it in our Maundy Thursday service. Slowly, item by item, all the furnishings and paraments, down the last candlestick and embroidered linen altar coverings were removed and stored away. At the end, the tabernacle light was extinguished, and darkness, deep and rich settled over us with finality as we finished recording.
I thought about the contrast between that darkness and the flare of fire when I contemplated this Sunday’s reading from Exodus, which includes the famous call narrative of Moses and the Burning Bush. It also drew me into some points I read by the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney about the symbolism of the pairing of darkness and light, and the way that symbolism can be misused and can feed into negative attitudes toward race. The impulse here in the West is to associate light with good and darkness with evil.
And yet, some of the holiest experiences I have had have occurred when I have prayed beneath the stars, when darkness has pulled back the azure veil and revealed the delights and the filigrees of constellations that go unseen in daytime, swirling overhead and testifying to the wonders of the handiwork of God. That darkness is a friend, causing the aperture of the pupils of the eyes to open widest in order to gather in even the faintest light. Especially in summer, that darkness lays soft and soothing against the skin, like silk or velvet.
The darkness is where creation takes place. The darkness is ancient. The darkness was the companion of God long before the universe came to be. And it is from the creative, velvet darkness that God’s call to Moses, and many of us, actually originates.
The darkness is where divine revelation seizes hold of Moses with the fiercest of grips, and the flare of that burning thorn bush becomes even more arresting. Although there have been several names used for God, up to this point in the Torah, the answer Moses receives is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” which is translated as “I am who I am” as well as “I will be who I will be”—in other words, God exists outside the realm of time and human experience, and past, present, and future are all the same to God.
The rolling pronouncement of the Holy Name of God – we hear it in our translation from the NRSV as “I Am Who I Am”–comes from the intersection of darkness and fire—and warns Moses to remove his sandals, since the ground on which he stands is holy. It was only during that dramatic collaboration between light and dark that Moses is called into a new life. Moses is called out of the darkness of his shepherd life to lead a new flock, and take on a new identity. We see a movement from “I Am” to “You will be.” Moses will be the prophet of I Am.
How can you use the creative velvet darkness this week to help call you deeper into your relationship with God?
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.