Tuesday, December 13, 2016

God of Shadows

A Reflection for the Quiet Days of Advent
The Bishop’s Ranch
Healdsburg, California

This is a very strange Advent. And that, I suppose, is saying something for a season that is meant to be strange. Talk of angels appearing to virgin peasants, wild men shouting at crowds in the desert, and the strange intersection of prophecy, worldly power, and divine favor have always made Advent an odd season, filled with paradoxes and contradictions.

But this one seems especially odd with a body politic turned on its head and things I grew up assuming and trusting no longer reliable. This Advent feels like someone turned out the light of enlightenment and odd shadows are thrown this way and that as one person’s rising star becomes another’s heart of darkness.

Serving a largely politically liberal community has met me with unexpected questions that I could have scarcely imagined even a year ago. What does it mean, for instance, to pray for our our new government-elect? What do we ask for? What do we pray for when it comes to the world’s fiefdoms and principalities and powers changing hands in ways we did not expect, and in ways that many of us didn’t want? What does it mean when we pray (as we do in my parish) for our new administration-elect to be granted wisdom and compassion? What do we legitimize or de-legitimize with such a prayer?

Which takes us to an even more ancient question of faith: Do we only pray for what we want or desire? Do we only praise God when we deem something that happens is good? And do we pray for things to change only when something is unfolding that we deem harmful or bad? Do we face the darkness only praying for the light? Do we ask for darkness to fall on those whom we deem benighted, and light and gracious power on those we deem enlightened?

Our fundamental bias is that we often believe that ours is the God only of daybreak, of light, of illumination. Something or someone else commands the darkness and shadow. And so we, like the ancient Greeks and some of our early Christian ancestors, imagine or at least pray as though the world is divided up spiritually and even materially into light and dark, daybreak and shadow, good and evil.

The womb is also a place of shadows, and we all began our lives in the dark. Our habit is often to romanticize the womb as a place of loving warmth, and for all of us blessed with loving mothers, it can certainly be that. But the womb also contains the seas and storms of billions of years of evolution, of cells organizing over and against chaos, of marking the boundaries between the energy of life and the dissolution of death, between child and mother, between this life, that life, and not life. It is about the infinitely complex dance of genes, chance, and circumstance mysteriously created by and infused with a Spirit who knew us even before we were conceived. It is about the death of billions before us that taught our bodies and minds how to survive, develop, and grow for a brief time in this world. And even then, it is simple biology but hard for us emotionally that over two thirds of attempted starts on this journey fail. So our very being knew death, chance, and vulnerability from the very moment of conception. To the very essence of every cell, we learned death before life, we knew the shadows before we saw the light.

That God risked everything to emerge into our world through this dangerous, unpredictable, and astonishingly miraculous process is in itself a testimony that ours is the God of shadows, a God who knows death and the role it plays in our development and the unfolding of our universe. And ours is a God who knows daybreak in the darkness, and the shadows that come with the light.

It is only our very deep Greek and Eastern cultural and philosophical influences that often bifurcate a reality of life and death, light and shadow, death and life. But to God, all of this – including the light and the shadow – just like energy and matter, space and time — are made of the same unnamed, mysterious  stuff, part of the same process, part of the inextricably intertwined pattern of Creation. It is not enough to blithely say – as we sometimes do – that without darkness there can be no light, and without daybreak there can be no shadow. It is more accurate to say that God is the God of both, and there is a deeper reality in which both are one.

And that deeper reality is one that only God knows and understands.

So God is God, too, of our odd political moment. Which I suppose is not very odd in the grand scheme of things. Jesus was conceived and born in a world of odd political moments in his own time, and the quest for power and intrigue was already as old then as the tradition of prophets and kings, of powers and principalities, of despots, of empires.

God is God, too, of our shadows. Of our failings and of our blindnesses. Of those benighted parts of our souls scurrying for cover to nurse their neuroses or those parts of us yearning for the light. God is there, too, ever at work — an understanding both comforting and unsettling, paradoxical, and yet very much made to order for Advent.

The message of the incarnation that we lift up — as the shadows are long, the days are short, and daybreak comes late — is that God is the God of all of us, divided souls and communities, of diverse and conflicted peoples, God of a world teetering ever on uncertainty. Ours is a God who meets us in death as well as in life, a God who understands both the birth of stars and the vast darkness between them, a God who sees the death of every part of us making way for the new, who knows the fullness of not only our life, but our death as organisms, the deaths even of our very thoughts, the loss of memory, the dissolution of reason itself… and all their redemption and more.

As the mystic Psalmist has written:
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; 
darkness and light to you are both alike. (139:11)

An Advent practice then is to learn how to pray in the darkness, in the shadow, in the land of uncertainty and fear, in the creeping doubts and inchoate worries. For God dwells there, too, and God — always — has the last word.