by Catherine Bird.
Darkness has had a rather incredible journey throughout time, shifting like the sands in terms of how it is perceived and understood.
But as humanity developed and evolved, a deep seated and intuitive understanding of the balance of nature also emerged and there wasn’t from the beginning of humankind and civilisation this understanding of light as good and dark as bad, things were much more interconnected – in a way that really goes against our modern dualistic association of light with goodness and dark with evil – that’s an association that is not really very widely reflected in what is known of many ancient cultures. But at various points in the history of Christianity, Darkness has been variously upheld as either a genuine pathway to divine encounter or as a symbol of heresy and evil.
In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, darkness is the fundamental state – God draws light from darkness. We might ask, if darkness was so terrible, why didn’t God at that point decide to get rid of darkness? But God keeps the darkness, as much of it as the light, 50-50 wherever we are in the world, and God saw that it was good. And many Creation myths share this as a common narrative, darkness as a pure state from within which beautiful things emerge.
The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament is actually replete with poetic and positive, dark related images which offer a vision of God residing in the darkness. Stories which have God using the cover of darkness as a means of liberation and enlightenment, loads of events which take place in the darkness and offer hopeful and positive narratives of transformation and Divine encounter.
One of the best known and most frequently quoted dark related images in the Old Testament is that to be found in Psalm 139.
In the context of a treatise about God’s omnipresence and omniscience, we read in verses 11 and 12, ‘if I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’
The writer here is describing the impossibility of hiding from God’s presence, and I do not read this Psalm as saying that darkness does not exist for God, or that light is supreme. Rather that darkness is not a place in which God is, or can ever be, absent. It is a place of growth, spiritual formation and sanctuary, a place in which God meets us at our most vulnerable.
Similarly in the New Testament, nany wonderful things happen under the cover of darkness. Even in John’s gospel, which loves the light good/dark bed metaphor, even there, we meet Nicodemus, the learned teacher and scholar who comes to Jesus after sundown to seek answers and to expand his mind. The night apparently serves Nicodemus well, setting him off on a journey in which we see him let go of a purely rational way of thinking and embrace the more mystical path of Jesus.
The inconsistency between metaphor and reality in John’s and to a lesser extent the other gospels, seems to pass the writers by actually! In the darkness of night an epiphany and a conversation of potential life changing significance take place; resurrection breaks through and the Glory of God is revealed. Yet still, in the midst of these things, darkness continues to be used as a term to describe malevolence and the absence of God.
- Think about Scripture – where in the Bible is darkness used positively, either as a metaphor or as a device?