Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Out of the Deepest Darkness (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures about a king who ruled Jerusalem in the seventh century before the common era who got word of an impending attack on the city and set out to make sure his people had supplies by connecting a pool of water within the city gates to the city’s major source of water outside the walls by way of a tunnel. Setting people to work from each end and having them miraculously meet in the middle, Hezekiah was able to quickly complete what was ultimately an “S” shaped 11,750-foot tunnel that joined the Pool of Siloam to the Gihon Spring. Astonishingly, this 3000-year-old marvel of engineering is still intact and about 30 years ago Gary and I walked through it with my sister Sidnie. My understanding is that nowadays the tunnel is paved and there are recessed lights in the ceiling, but when we went through it it was very much as the first archeologists found it – filled with sudden turns, erratic changes in height, and darkness – lots of deep, deep darkness.
My sister is a biblical scholar and an excellent tour guide, so we came equipped with extra lights and solid footwear. Even so, our inability to anticipate the next turn and sudden plunges from ankle to thigh-deep water produced quite a few nervous giggles and gave us the sense that we had been in there a lot longer than expected. We were (according to Sidnie) about a quarter of the way through when we saw two tiny flickering lights ahead of us. As we drew closer, we saw that they were matches – or rather a series of matches being lit in rapid succession by two young men whose increasingly visible faces were absolutely terrified. They did not speak English (or Hebrew), but we were able to discern from their gestures that they had been traveling from the other end of the tunnel without any light other than matches- and they were about to run out of them. Wet and dirty, they grasped our arms, pointing back the way they had come, clearly asking if they could remain with us. We offered them one of our flashlights and tried to explain that they were actually much closer to the end than we were and that if they just kept going, they would be out soon. I don’t know if they understood us or not, but either way they opted to stay with us and go back the way they had come, taking the longer but seemingly safer way out of the darkness into the light.
Many human beings express fear of darkness – not just physical darkness, but the metaphorical darkness of the unknown, in the hearts of others, and the dark desires and despair of our own souls. Perhaps this is because some deep primordial part of us remembers the darkness out of which the world was created – a deep, formless void without sound, without scent, without air. Maybe we sense that we might return to that ancient, chaotic darkness – to that dense and tangible nothingness. I think this why when we see primitive behavior our reactions are just as involuntary and combative as the actions that triggered them. Fight or flight is not just a trendy way to understand our emotional responses; it’s a biological imperative. When we feel darkness around us our instinct is to protect ourselves and those we love – either by physical or emotional withdrawal or by righteous aggressive engagement. Onward Christian soldiers.
We are in a time of deep darkness in our nation right now – and like the tourists in Hezekiah’s tunnel we must make decisions about how we are going to move forward in this unfamiliar and distressing gloom. This week we witnessed unprecedented conduct in our nation’s capital. Our moorings have been pulled from beneath us: civility, tradition, unity, shared values, and, for Christians, brotherly and sisterly love, can no longer be assumed parts of our communal lives. We wonder how we got to this place – and how we can move forward from here. We seek out light – any light – that we can follow to get us out of this darkness. It is tempting to select a path from among those offered by the human voices among us – especially those who tell us that we need not fear suffering or pain because we are chosen by God. “Have a blessed day” we tell one another -as if when we have a bad day we are not blessed. We mistake faith for favoritism.
The truth is that there is nothing in our theology that promises that we will not undergo trials and tribulations. Anyone who has read our Holy Scriptures knows that they are filled with stories of chaos, war, famine, disease, and death. It takes humanity just one biblical chapter to commit an act of theft and betrayal and begin our long separation from God and one another. Over and over again human beings act out of self-interest and fear despite God’s repeated efforts to teach us how to overcome our baser instincts.
The good news is that we can learn from our mistakes. There is much in our Holy Scriptures that suggests that periods of crisis, disunity, and chaos can be clarifying and unifying for God’s people. God’s chosen are repeatedly separated from God only to be reconciled each time with new knowledge about what God wants from the people. Each tragedy, each separation cleanses us from our sins and prepares us to move forward with a better understanding of what it means to be part of a beloved community. Our forebears valued such cleansing so much that they codified it into our worship rituals. Paul asked the people of Ephesus if they had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They answered that they had not, but they had been baptized in John’s baptism – a baptism of repentance. Similarly, we in The Episcopal Church weekly confess our sins against God and one another and are absolved of them. This ritual is called a “sacramental rite,” and is an important acknowledgement of our heritage- an acknowledgment that we are powerless without God. It is not, however, a sacrament; it is not an outward and visible sign of God’s blessing upon us.
The primary indication of our membership in Christ’s community is our willingness to share in his life and death through baptism. When we are baptized, we recognize and accept that Jesus died for us, and we enter that death with him. Today we remember Jesus’s own baptism by his cousin John. Because we perform infant and child baptisms, the light sprinkling of water received in baptisms in The Episcopal Church does not adequately replicate the serious dunking that Jesus would have received in the Jordan River. Baptism is a symbol of death and rebirth. It should feel like drowning. When we agree to be baptized, to become Christian, we agree to drown – to die with Christ. With Jesus we go down into the darkness of the deep water – where there is no sound or light, but only a great void of nothingness – so that we may, with Jesus, rise out of it again.
That is what it means to be a Christian in a time of darkness. It does not mean that we are the ones who will escape tribulation. It does not mean that we are the ones who will be proven correct. It means that we are the ones who are willing to move forward through the deep water, through the darkness, through death if need be – because we know that Jesus is with us in the chaos and gloom. Dive deeply then into the current night without fear. The cleansing may be painful. The losses may be hard, but we must not turn around now. Darkness is always only temporary, for our God is the creator of light. Have faith and hold fast -and at the appointed time we will like our savior rise up out of the darkness to see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove and the voice of God speaking and saying, “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” AMEN.