When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.
Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who contrive mischief by statute?
They band together against the life of the righteous, and condemn the innocent to death.
But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge.
There is an innate experience that human beings can have of the night time. The dark of night can make us feel particularly vulnerable or particularly vigilant, especially when we are outside at night – whether we are camping in the wilderness or walking the urban sidewalks. The contribution of the most primitive or oldest structure of our brains, the amygdala, may play a part in activating our survival instincts when we find ourselves in darkness. Sometimes, with our vision unable to penetrate the night, our imaginations can magnify the sound of a raccoon to inspire our imagination to perceive a prowling grizzly bear. Conversely, sometimes the night hides very real dangers, and we are wise to be alert to them.
The Christians of the first century were “dark smart” in many ways. On a practical level, they knew how to read the changing seasons and the regular shift of the stars in the heavens throughout the year. They knew the dangers of the hills and valleys at night as well as the streets after dusk. People returned home before sunset and prayed. They rose in the morning with the sun and prayed again. A single, small oil lamp could light an entire subterranean home in the deserts. Like a modern porch light, keeping a lamp or fire burning into the night served as a beacon of safe haven for shepherds, travelers or family members.
In the Old Testament, the symbol of light indicates divine truth, and God’s word was akin to light illuminating the darkness, also indicating the way to go. The symbol of a lit lamp was used to indicate that instruction had been received as a result of understanding of God’s Word. A metaphor for righteousness and goodness, the first act of creation is God’s Spirit creating light and calling it “good.” In the New Testament, God’s Spirit is depicted as the spiritual fire of Pentecost, a flame residing in each apostle present and then spread from person to person through discipleship, baptism and sharing the Good News.
In contrast, the symbol of darkness indicated an experience of being separated or distant from God, from truth and from wisdom. In the Gospel of Matthew, the “outer darkness” is the formless void to which people can be “cast out” and where there is much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The sense being conveyed is the perils of loss of right or ideal relationship with others and with God, which is what the term “sin” means. The original sense of “sin” in New Testament Greek ἁμαρτία (hamartia) is failure, being in error, missing the mark, especially in spear throwing. It is most often associated with Greek tragedy, although it is also used in Christian theology.
Hamartia as it pertains to dramatic literature was first used by Aristotle in his Poetics. In tragedy, hamartia is understood to refer to the hero’s error or tragic flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in a reversal of their good fortune to bad. What qualifies as the error or flaw can include an error resulting from ignorance, an error of judgement, a flaw in character, or a wrongdoing. In the morality of Greek tragedy, people often tend to bring about their own ill fortune due to their own personality or action and inability or unwillingness to change.
The way Jesus applied the term in his teachings, as we have them, suggests that while God is a merciful judge, there is a divine expectation that those who follow Christ will be committed to self and social transformation. Ultimately, to follow Christ was understood as living in a just relationship within society; his “way” was seen as wisdom and the failure to live from compassion and commit oneself to justice was seen as a fatal flaw that would lead to both the death of self and the death of the nation (Israel), even of the world. For early Christians, then, it was not enough to believe that Christ was the Savior, the Messiah – the response to God’s love manifests in actions of justice, mercy, love, reconciliation, care, and healing. Both humanity and Creation were seen as possessing inherent dignity because God’s light had been bestowed upon them. The darkness carried within people’s hearts was understood as the flaw or source of spiritual blindness to God’s presence and need in the world that could be illuminated through faith. As the author of John’s Gospel has written, “What has come into being in him [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In the season of Advent – at least in the northern hemisphere – our nighttime has increased in duration. At this time of year, though we may not rely upon the stars in heaven for a sense of where we are when we travel at night, we can still value the warmth of a fire in the evening hearth or the welcome light of a porch light that has been left on for us. We still know the power of even a small light to illuminate the darkness when stormy weather causes an electrical outage.
As Christians, like our spiritual forebears in first century Palestine, we are called to be “dark smart” in our faith. Rather than succumbing to fear in anxious times, when real threats seek to do us harm or dismantle communal accord, we commit ourselves to bringing the light of hope and promise through actions of persevering love in the world around us. To be dark smart is to be light ready. In the season of our church, our hemisphere, our nation and our world, we must shine in the darkness with the unrelenting light of truth – that all that goes bump in the dark may be revealed, challenged, and changed so that we and all those in need of peace and justice may know both in abundance.
This Advent, may you be “light ready” so that strangers and family alike may be guided home, which is to say – may the Christ that dwells in the manger of your heart be revealed to a world in much need of the light of your joy, your hope, your peace and your love.
In Christ’s Peace,
The Rev. Rachel K. Taber-Hamilton, Rector