I’d never experienced total darkness before the night that 15 of us, three adults and 12 youth, stayed in a cave. We entered Alabama’s Desoto Caverns in the daylight with headlamps and sleeping bags. After viewing stalactites, stalagmites and strange insects, our guide prepped us for the night ahead. It’s going to be dark, he said. Really dark.
I’ll never forget, however, just how eerily dark it was when we extinguished the last light. You could put your hand an inch from your face and see nothing. Someone whispered, “O my God it is dark.”
It wasn’t profanity; it was a prayer. What a long night that was with no light.
When the sun descended in the ancient world, it was completely dark. The ambient light of bedside lamps and cell phones makes it hard to imagine nightfall in the world of Jesus, where people couldn’t see anything at all.
Into that world Isaiah the prophet announced that the people walking in darkness had seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2-7). The Hebrew word for darkness means more than the absence of light. It means, “O my God, it is dark.” A heavy cloud of gloom, a deep obscurity, had fallen on the people. They felt oppressed and lost.
America feels like that to many people right now. Gloom, argument and disruption create fear for the future. It feels like we’re groping in the dark, waiting for daylight.
When the light dawned, Isaiah proclaimed, joy would give way to despair. The yoke of oppression would be broken, the heavy burden on people’s shoulders removed. Every war boot and bloodstained piece of clothing would be fuel for the fire.
But wait: The light would take on flesh. That’s the Christmas story, for those who believe. A child would be born. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
Still, there is much darkness.
Frederick Buechner wrote, “We can’t see light itself. We can see only what light lights up, like the little circle of night where the candle flickers — a sheen of mahogany, a wineglass, a face leaning toward us out of the shadows. When Jesus says that he is the Light of the World, maybe something like that is part of what he is saying. He himself is beyond our seeing, but in the darkness where we stand, we see, thanks to him, something of the path that stretches out … even when we can hardly believe that it goes anywhere worth going or that we have what it takes to go there, something of whoever it is that every once in a while seems to lean toward us out of the shadows.”
Winter’s light feels different from that of the summer. It doesn’t comfort or warm us, but still it shines. We wait in winter’s light and remember: spring is coming.