The Darkness of God
The following sermon was preached by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue
at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia on August 10, 2014
The Darkness of God
“They saw his glory.” With these words, the Gospel of Luke distills the experience of the transfiguration. Jesus has, as he so often did through his ministry, gone aside to pray. With him are the inner circle of his disciples—Peter, James, and John. The text tells us, “And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance war altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.” Jesus changes from an earthly appearance to a heavenly one. His face shone like the sun, his clothes became dazzling white. The one who once told the disciples “I am the light of the world,” shone out brightly, making that enigmatic I am statement more than a metaphor. Peter, James, and John saw Jesus’ glory.
Light is a powerful symbol in scripture. Two examples will suffice to remind us:
In John’s Gospel he said “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19).
Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans (13:12), “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.”
God is light and that is good. Darkness is bad and God has nothing to do with darkness, because darkness is the absence of light. This is a good solid image from the Bible.
But the Evangelist, Luke, continues with a different image, “there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.” From the cloud, God the Father booms out “This is my beloved Son: hear him.”
Certainly the Father’s words should remind us of Jesus’ baptism when God spoke from a cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But calling our minds to Jesus’ baptism, this scene also calls to mind Moses’ experience on Sinai. God also called to Moses from a cloud. Moreover, Moses too would come down the mountain with his face shining. In fact, Moses face shone so brightly that the people wanted him to cover his face with a veil.
The cloud overshadowing both the Mount of Transfiguration and Sinai is connected to another strand within the Bible, a thread winding itself through scripture which connects darkness to the mystery of God. Two examples show some of the many times a different understanding of the image of God and darkness:
In Exodus we are told “The people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21).
The prophet Isaiah told us a lot about light and darkness, particularly saying that the Messiah would be a light to the nations. But Isaiah also wrote, “And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel” (Isaiah 45:3).
The fifth-century Syrian monk we know as Pseudo-Dionysius wrote that God sometimes cuts through our lesser light of understanding with what he called “a ray of darkness.” This concept of a ray of darkness means that just when we think we understand who God is and how God acts, God shows us that we cannot contain the Holy Trinity. This revelation cuts through our complacency like a ray of darkness.
A ray of darkness is a good expression for what happens in our Gospel reading. The reading begins, “And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings.” This is to cause us to recall which sayings had come eight days previous to this lesson. Tracing back, we find that eight days earlier Simon Peter responded to Jesus question “Whom say ye that I am” with the confession of Jesus as The Messiah. Now, eight days after the light of certainty on that day, Jesus’ transfiguration breaks into Peter’s life like a ray of darkness. Though Peter knew Jesus to be The Anointed One, he didn’t yet fully understand what was meant by the title “The Messiah.” Even though he had prophecies including the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah, Simon Peter would need the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday and then the light of the empty tomb on the third day before he could comprehend what it meant for Jesus to be The Messiah.
The images connecting God and darkness reveal that God is calling us to a deeper experience of the mystery that is divinity. God calls us deeper into God’s own glory, the secret places of which we as of yet know nothing. Writers through the centuries struggled to describe how experiencing God can plunge us into darkness. In the 1600s, the Welsh poet Henry Vaughn wrote, “There is in God (some say), a deep but dazzling darkness.”
Dazzling darkness is just the sort of paradox writers often used, not unlike Pseudo-Dionysius writing of a “ray of darkness” to describe what it is like to have the deep and hidden things of God break into our lesser understanding of God.
While God does break into the darkness of uncertainty with a ray of light piercing the gloom, God can also take our certainty or complacency and break in with a ray of deep, dazzling darkness, showing us that we have not arrived at some safe destination where we know and understand God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
God cannot be controlled. The Holy Trinity is not tame or safe, but good (and there is a difference). Into the darkness of our doubts, fears and insecurities the light of the love of God shines brightly. I have seen that light in some very dark places. And yet, every time I think I have some purchase on the divine, some bit of reality comes crashing in. For example, I think I understand who God is and how God acts and speak so confidently to others in the hospital and then I find myself standing by the gurney as doctors and nurses tend to my own daughter and I don’t find my faith crumbling, for God is faithful, but when her life held in the balance for an hour or so, I came to understand that whether she lived or died, she was the Lord’s. I would look back later and see how in the crucible of my own fears and anxieties, my own understanding of God as reflected in my pastoral care for others had fallen short of those anguished hours.
I can never fully comprehend who God is and how and why God acts. God is God and I am not. There is no job vacancy as much as I might sometime wish I could take God’s place. But that is good as life gives me opportunities to see that some other area of my faith is naïve, not up to the reality of the world as it is. Even by the light of the scriptures and church tradition, I still find areas of spiritual blindness within me.
I want to share an experience that I trust will help bring more focus to the paradoxical point of this sermon. I once served as a chaplain intern at St. Elizabeths, a large public mental hospital in Washington D.C. I went unsure what ministry I could accomplish. How could I reach people afflicted with the most serious of mental illnesses? While at St. E’s I got to know a man who knew all about light and darkness. The client, who I’ll call Mr. Morgan, had been very combative when he first came to the hospital where he would be diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia. Mr. Morgan lashed out against everyone around. He was, as he would later describe it, in a very dark place.
Mr. Morgan and I met on my routine visits to his ward. We talked almost daily and as treatment progressed his delusions fell away. He began to attend our weekly church services in his building. He started reading daily devotions and I helped make arrangements for a Roman Catholic chaplain to bring him communion once a week. After reconnecting to his loving Lord, Mr. Morgan talked to me about light and darkness.
Mr. Morgan said, “If you were in a cave and you were carrying a torch like you see in a movie, what would you do if it went out?”
I replied, “I guess I would try to relight it.”
He went on, “But what if you didn’t have a light?”
“Well I guess I would wander around in the dark looking for a way out.” I wondered where he was going with his story. I paused trying to picture the scene. What kind of darkness were we talking about?
Mr. Morgan was quite philosophical, so I began to think about other kinds of darkness. Depression and despair came to mind, so did loneliness and confusion. What other kinds of darkness are there? Where are the dark places I’ve known or known people to encounter in life? What would someone do if the torch went out in his or her life? I came up with another solution, “Unless someone else came by with a light. Someone else could bring a light,” I offered.
He smiled. I was hooked. “That’s what you do. You come around here and shed a little light. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re in the dark until somebody comes by with a light, if you know what I mean.”
I did know what he meant. Mr. Morgan was talking about shining the light of Christ into the dark corners of our world. This light can be taken for granted by those of us already basking in its glow. Sometimes we need a ray of darkness to call us from a place of certainty to a further journey with God. But to people fumbling around in the dark night of their own souls the dim glow of God’s grace and love is all they need. To people who have let themselves get disconnected from God even a glimmer of the true light can make all the difference, overshadowing them with God’s love.
His words were gratifying to hear. Yet, they crashed in on me like a ray of darkness. Because in his words I began to see what a small box I had used to try to contain God. I thought I was at St. Elizabeths as the one with the answer, the one with the light to bring. The clients were the ones in darkness. But that was too neat a solution. I realized that he too had been a source of light. Looking back on the relationship, when I first went onto Mr. Morgan’s ward at St. Elizabeths, I was the stranger. Mr. Morgan sat back, warily watching. But then, he reached out to me. I was the stranger and he offered me hospitality. He began to look for me to visit the ward, to welcome me. He shared with me other clients’ concerns and introduced me to new people on the ward. In his hospitality, I saw the light of Christ and reflected some of that light back to him.
I did not go to St. Elizabeths as the one with all the gifts, trying to shed light among people in the dark. I went in all my brokenness to St. Elizabeths. I took my own inadequacy, my fears and apprehension about working with severely mentally ill persons. But thankfully any ministry was not depend on my adequacy. Ministry is a work of the Holy Spirit. And for those with eyes to see, even in the dingy wards of a large, poorly funded public mental hospital, the light of Christ shone brightly. I see now that I had been certain that this was not possible. If it had not been for God using Mr. Morgan to get my attention showing me how God can and does readily use those afflicted by serious mental illness and others who we would think are too broken to serve as a lamp to others, then I would have remained stuck with a lesser light. My understanding of God would have remained too small.
How is God speaking to you this day? Are you in a dark place emotionally or spiritually? If so, the light of God’s love can and will shine into the darkest of places. But if you have grown complacent, feeling you have a handle on the mystery which is life lived with the Holy Trinity. God can and will break in to show you that you have a lesser understanding of who God is and how God acts. It is not in certainty that we gain a better sense of God, but in mystery. As we continue our worship, we will be overshadowed once more with God’s love in the divine mystery of the Eucharist. We do not need to fully understand in order to be fully nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood in the elements of bread and wine. But so empowered by this means of grace, we can go back out into a lost and hurting world ready to reflect the light of Christ we have experienced in our worship. For here in the liturgy, we get a glimpse of the glory of God.