■ By Ken Leydens / Contributed
The Gospel of John opens with the beautiful declaration that Jesus is the light of the world. It says also that humanity tends to love darkness rather than light. Even so, the light of the world shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John points us back to Genesis, where darkness is what God pushed back when creating light.
In the Bible, darkness has spiritual significance. In Matthew, people saw Jesus and exclaimed that for those who sat in the shadow of death, light has dawned. In 1 John, God is light and in him there is no darkness. 1 Peter says Christians are those who are God’s own people, called out of darkness, into his marvelous light. Revelation tells of the New Jerusalem where there is no need of sun or moon to shine, for the glory of God is its light.
Let me be clear here: I’m not talking about color; in particular, not the color of people’s skin. Too many have suffered from metaphors of darkness that equated dark skin with evil. The darkness in the Bible is the contrast with light, sun and daylight. We are talking about illumination, not skin pigmentation.
Scripture regards light as a good thing. Light gives us warmth, we can see where we are going, and life is sustained. In contrast, the absence of light makes things cold and renders most animals blind. In darkness, proper distinction is impossible. The old saying goes, “At midnight, all cats are gray.” This is the disorder that comes with darkness.
And so, light is associated with understanding – “It was like a light bulb came on in my head.”
But, it is also true that we see better without so much light. Sometimes the light can be so bright that we are unable to see. We become blinded by the light. I know people whose illnesses made even the smallest amount of light unbearable.
The sanctuary at the last church I served was so dark on Sundays that people joked saying the best time to see a bulletin was when they held a lit candle on Christmas Eve. But, when we put in higher wattage light bulbs, parishioners complained that it was too bright. We ended up hiring a consultant who taught us about the interplay of light and dark in buildings. He told us that the right amount of shading is key in seeing, because shadow makes things beautiful.
In many places in the Bible, God is said to dwell in the mysterious, unapproachable thick darkness. The idea here is that the glory of God is so great, that only darkness enables us to approach; the stark, full light of God would devastate us.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night….”
– (John 3:1-2a)
There are some people who seem to believe that Jesus can be found only in the light of day. They can imagine worshipping only in the full, bright light with everything positive, upbeat, glorious and grand.
Yet, we find Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. The symbolism of the darkness is important to this story. Nicodemus moves from saying what he knows for sure about Jesus to professing what he does not know. At this moment, this well-educated, important leader was in the dark. He came to Jesus at night.
There are some who can be with Jesus only in the light. I tell you, though, sometimes, there is nothing worse than bright and happy Christians, singing only upbeat melodies, so full of praise and celebration that they make you feel guilty if you happen to come in with a bit of shadow in your soul.
In the story of Nicodemus, perhaps we are to see that coming to Jesus in the dark can be good.
Pascal was converted when he saw God from about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight, when it was black. He had a vision and cried out, “Fire, fire, fire” because the light was all the more bright because of the darkness.
St. Francis received his stigmata when he saw a crucified seraph descend from heaven sometime before dawn.
The apostle Paul became a Christian by first going blind.
I did some travelling recently. One evening, in the desert, I watched the sunset and the stars come out in the ink-black sky. The beauty overwhelmed me; I was ecstatic, and I felt so close to God.
I have got nothing against meeting Jesus in bright, beautiful times, when everything comes together and all is just right. But there are times when we come to Jesus by night; stumbling, groping our way through the darkness; and there coming face-to-face with Jesus’ love and embrace. It’s not bad to be like Nicodemus and come to Jesus “by night.”
St. John of the Cross spoke of that “dark night of the soul,” in which we are blinded by gracious light. The ministry of Jesus came to a head, not in some beautifully lit spiritual mountaintop, but at a hill called “The Place of the Skull,” when the sky turned completely dark for three hours. Yet, in that darkness, we believe is our salvation.
I hope the sun is shining for you. I hope you’re happy and things are going well for you, loved ones and friends. But I will tell you: if this time, this season of Lent, happens to find you not well, not well off, in the dark – at twilight or toward midnight (if you know what I mean), then know that we have a savior who keeps evening hours. See that our God works the night shift. Night might be the right time to come to Jesus. Let him sit with you, talk with you, reveal his will and his way to you. When it is dark, at night, that is a good time to call on Jesus.
This article was previously run in a March 2017 issue and Ken Leydens is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hemet.