Holy Darkness, Holy Light

On the morning of November 22, 1963, I was too young to appreciate the fact that my entire life was going to be changed forever that day, that violence, assassinations and war would dominate the news almost every night until I graduated from high school.  I did not then have the capacity to understand how very different the world was prior to 1963, and I still lack that capacity because the world, as I have come to experience it, is always on the brink of another outbreak of insecurity.  Despite that understanding, or perhaps because of it, I find the reading from Isaiah to be very emotionally charged: “…nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

In the Prophet’s vision, weapons of mass destruction and death are transformed into life-affirming tools and implements of healing for a hurting world.  Each time I read the words, especially if I have to read them aloud, I choke up because they touch me on a deep level, especially when the world I know doesn’t always seem in harmony with the words. And I wait for the fullness of the vision to be manifested.

War continues through the ongoing, government-sponsored violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its casualties of civilians and combattants alike.  There are those taken from their families by suicide bombers, by insurgents, by armed supporters from foreign governments.  Beyond that, there is what they call “collateral damage”—a seemingly innocuous term that tries to mask the reality of what it denotes: the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians whose only fault has been to be in the path of a giant war machine as it rumbles forward seemingly without an end in sight.

“…nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

We have memories of violence closer to home: Columbine High School, Platte Valley High, and the terrible tragedy that took 33 lives at Virginia Tech.  There is also the American epidemic of domestic violence, including sexual abuse in the home.  Approximately 25% of all children, male and female, experience some level of domestic violence within their family home before they reach the age of 18.

In the past 10,000 years of human history, since we first left the plains of East Africa, we have relied on one basic response to violence: more violence.  We came up with this solution 10 centuries ago, and we can’t seem to think of anything better! Some of us turn to violent means to protect ourselves. My own son now owns a handgun that he keeps in his house.  He never locks the doors to his house, or the doors to his cars, mind you, because he feels safe in his neighborhood–yet he feels the need for a handgun.  The fact that he has two young sons, who are inquisitive by nature, has not deterred him from the belief that, should a burglar interrupt his life, he will be able to “defend” what is righfully his.  We see the same behavior on a national level.  We have convinced ourselves that the only path to safety and security is by advocating and practicing violence and spending a lot of money getting ready for the inevitability that we will have to use violence again and again in the future.

“…nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

So, okay, it’s a dark world we inhabit. The dark days of winter are upon us, the days are shorter, but the other darkness seems more evident as well: discrimination, hatred, violence, savagery, and tragedy.  Some might be tempted to despair.

Thousands of years after the words of Isaiah were written, with very little evidence to support his vision, is it still possible to share his dream? Is it still possible that God’s vision for humanity is worth believing in and hoping for?

In Advent, we acknowledge the darkness that sometimes surrounds us and we dare to peer into that darkness. We peer into the darkness of our world, but also that of our own hearts. We do this, not because darkness is all there is, not because we’re masochists, but because if we don’t acknowledge the darkness and come to an understanding of it, we’ll never perceive the light.

Those of you who have been in a photography darkroom know what I’m talking about.  When you first enter and seal the door, it is unbelievably dark.  Your mind starts to invent images because your eyes are straining to see something—anything!  There is no light, so your disconcerted brain makes up colors and swirls of light.  As you spend time in the darkness, however, it eventually becomes apparent that light is finding its way into the room—through cracks under the sealed door,through the small gaps in the ceiling tiles,etc…  Before long, you really can see quite clearly in the darkroom because you have gone into the darkness and discovered the light that was always there.

There is always light.  This is a fundamental element in our faith, and it’s the fundamental message of Advent.  No matter what, there is always light! This is our source of courage and faith in the midst of a dark world. That is precisely why the ancient prophet, inspired by God, could proclaim…

“…nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

And that is why we, the 21st century people of God, dare to look ahead with hope and eager anticipation. We dare to hope in the coming of Light and a universal reign of peace and righteousness, justice and love.

Beyond our hoping, we dare to live in the present moment, knowing that the victory of light is already here.  The Light of God—Jesus the Christ—has come. The Light of God will shine in complete fullness because we are here, because we have work to do, because all of creation is groaning under the weight of darkness, as St. Paul reminds us, waiting for the restoration and healing that is coming to fulfillment right now.  The Light of God is here in our midst, in our world, offering glimpses of God at work even in the shadows.

We know that Christ has triumphed over the forces of darkness and fear, as this African fable reminds us:

A large terrier was upset as he watched two other dogs fight each other. “Fighting makes no sense,” he said to himself. “I will make them stop.” Quickly, he ran between the two snarling animals, pushing the bigger of the two aside. To his great surprise, the other dog turned on him and began to attack him. Soon the large dog joined in until the peacemaker was battered and bruised.

Indeed, countless peacemakers throughout history have been ridiculed, battered, and bruised—even killed: People like Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Ghadhi, and Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Cesar Romero. But each of these people went willingly into the darkness in the hope and confidence that, in God’s name and by God’s power, they would bring a little light and peace to a dark world.  They heard the prophet’s call, “Walk in the light!”

Today, that same calls beckons to you and me: “Walk in the light!”  Can we do that? Can we walk in the light of God? Can we be sources of light and peacemakers in a dark and violent world?

The story is told of an ancient warlike tribe that regularly made war, killed and pillaged neighboring tribes.  They seemed to have no regard for human life and to be completely lacking in compassion.  It seemed to other tribes that this tribe’s easy use of violence would destroy them all eventually.

Alarmed, some of the elders gathered from all the neighboring tribes with the intention of saving the violent tribe’s people from themselves.  After much debate, the elders decided to take the secret of peace and wholeness away from those who abused it and to hide it from them.

But where should the secret be hidden? Some suggested it be buried deep in the earth. Others said to put it on top of the highest mountain. Still others suggested it be sunk deep in the ocean. Finally, the wise elder made this proposal: “Let us hide the secret within the people themselves,” he recommended. “People like this will never find wholeness and peace there.”  So that is what was done, and to this day, people are still feverishly pursuing wholeness and peace, searching virtually everywhere for this secret.  Relatively few ever find its hiding place—within themselves.

That is, after all, where Christ is—within us. With all the power of divinity and grace, healing and blessing, Christ dwells within us. Not only is our source of peace and light and wholeness within us, but the same source is alive and at work in others all over the world.

And so, the Church proclaims again this year our radical Advent message: “There is Light! There is Hope and Peace! God has given these things in Christ—who dwells among us and within us!”  All that remains is for us to decide if we’re in or not.  If we are in, let’s release what holds us back, and begin walking in the light.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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