In the Northern hemisphere, we are just inching past the Winter Solstice. Through Advent and Christmas overwhelm, through the longest nights and the gradual loss of sunlight, we are back now into growing light.
As someone who has often felt that lack of sunlight in my body and spirit, I know the relief when the earth spirals back into the growing-daylight part of the year. Maybe you do, too. The daylight grows, at last, a relief.
Before we head too far into the sunshine, though, I want to invite us white folk in particular to take a moment.
We hear these words from John’s Gospel a lot during Advent and Christmas: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5, NRSV)
We say these words and cling to light, in candles and LED strands and more candles and more LEDs and shopping malls lit up with fluorescent sales beyond flashing-lit sales.
Have you noticed this? Unceasing, incessant light. All year round, actually.
At the same time, we are taught to fear darkness, to avoid darkness at all costs. Darkness is something to be endured, overcome. Darkness is evil, scary, bad, sinful. The dark side of the Force? The Dark Lord? These “dark” times we live in?
We are even taught to punish darkness.
But here are two things about John’s words.
First, in John’s time, people lived much more connected to the cycles of earth that honored times of light and dark.
We now live so disconnected from those cycles we forget that darkness is necessary for life. The darkness of winter is just as vital as the brightness of summer.
Seeds, and dreams, germinate in darkness.
Seeds, and bodies, rest in darkness.
Darkness, without light, leads to death. But light, without darkness, also leads to death.
Light without darkness burns our skin, damages our eyes, dehydrates our souls.
Unceasing, incessant light, leads also to death.
Notice, John does not say that light vanquishes darkness. Rather, light and darkness are brought into balance. One does not overcome the other.
Second, in John’s time, darkness-as-evil was not yet mapped onto bodies as it came to be with the development of white supremacy and the colonization, genocide, and enslavement of brown and Black bodies. At the same time light-as-good was mapped onto light-skinned bodies, becoming whiteness.
Whites made theological claims about the meaning of Black and brown bodies: scary, savage, uncivilized, brutish, devilish. . . The same words we hear now in excusing the killing, policing, and containing of brown and Black people: thug, demon, threat, terrorist, criminal.
As white folk, our eyes are damaged with whiteness, distorting our capacity to perceive dark-skinned bodies as anything other than something to fear, to avoid (i.e. segregation), to punish.
Our world cannot afford for white folk to go on with this damaged perception. So as we shift into the season of growing light, let’s also practice embracing darkness.
Let’s examine our vocabulary in our everyday conversations, our liturgies and sermons, our social media posts. Language matters: stopping to think about our words helps disrupt the embedded whiteness in our heads that creates meaning for us, and allows us to create new, more just meaning. We can say, for example, “these are difficult …challenging…heartbreaking… times,” rather than “dark” ones. We can give thanks for darkness’s gifts.
And, let’s find ways to connect to earth’s rhythms, the inward-outward spiraling of light-dark so necessary for life in abundance. When you plant your spring seeds, for example, ponder what it means that seeds are sown into the earth’s darkness, that the roots stay in the dark as the flower unfurls into sunlight.
With practice, we can re-train our vision, our hearts, our souls to perceive differently, to resist the unceasing, incessant message of darkness-and-dark-bodies-as-evil being beamed into us like a searchlight. With practice, we can reclaim our vision, our hearts, our souls for the beloved community.
On Christmas Eve, many of us will sing “Silent Night” in darkened sanctuaries gradually illumined by single candles lit flame by flame.
The candlelight is beautiful. The darkness makes it so.
Rev. Anne Dunlap is a pastor, activist, and herbal warrior; the Faith Coordinator for SURJ; and UCC Community Minister who lives on Haudenosaunee land currently called Buffalo, NY. She is committed to fierce love and collective liberation, working in freedom movements with folks across race, gender, and class lines for nearly 30 years. Follow her on Twitter/Insta @fiercerev. Her website is fiercerevremedies.com.
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