Scripture has a pronounced bias favoring “light” and opposing “darkness.” But there’s a minority report as well, where the Holy One is encountered in darkness.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God proclaims: “I will give you the treasures of darkness … that you may know that I, the LORD, am the God of Israel” (Isaiah 45:3).
The opening chapter of Genesis affirms that creation begins in darkness: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (1:5).
The promise to Abram, of descendants outnumbering the stars and of land (read security) is made only after a “deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him” (Genesis 15:12).
Isaac’s son, Jacob, has his name changed (read destiny) to “Israel” following an all-night wrestling match with an “angel” (Genesis 32:24-32).
The Hebrew slaves’ escape from Pharaoh’s prison camp occurred at night; a little later, their covenant-making encounter with God comes from “the voice out of the darkness” (Ex. 20:21; Deut. 5:22).
Indeed, “The LORD has said that he would reside in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8;12; 2 Chr. 6:1), and God “made darkness his covering around him” (Ps. 18:11).
The repeated promise of good news is “to those who sat in darkness … for those who sat in the region and shadow of death” (Isa. 9:2; Mt. 4:16). To these faithful ones, “the treasures of darkness” are promised (Isa. 45:3).
The Jesus story begins with angels appearing in the dead of night to roughneck shepherds. Royal astrologers from the East are alerted to divine announcement by stars visible only in darkness. Joseph and Mary, toting baby Jesus, flee the wrath of political authorities under cover of night.
On more than one occasion, Jesus’ imprisoned followers received nighttime angelic visitation, either to free them (Act 5:19) or to bolster their courage for a coming trial (18:9).
And the Apostle Paul’s initiation of his historic mission to Gentiles came on the heels of another night vision, of a “man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9).
As the contemporary seer Wendell Berry wrote: “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
Lent’s distinctive labor is to allow ourselves to marinate in this motif.
There are several words from the oldest manuscripts of the Bible translated as “sin” in English, each with a nuanced meaning. If I were translating, my choice would be the word “cluelessness” in many of those renderings.
While there are some who willfully, menacingly commit fraud or violence, most of our sinning is unintentional: most often we are clueless, of the “they-know-not-what-they-do” variety.
That’s why the work of repentance involves setting aside a measure of our privilege to experience the world through the eyes of those on the margins. This is where our most reliable theological education begins.
It has been rightly said: What you see depends on where you stand. Lent is the season when we consciously examine where we are standing to see if we may need to relocate.
The relinquishment God asks of us — the desert into which Jesus guides us — is neither a kind of spiritual immolation nor is the bent-kneed posture of Lent a form of groveling, as a beggar to a patron.
The flame of the Spirit’s igniting presence does not scorch us. It makes us radiant. The ascetic practices of spiritual discipline are training for life lived unleashed from our shriveled little egos.
Archibald MacLeish makes a bold and insightful assertion in “J.B.,” a play based on the Book of Job: “Isn’t there anything you understand? It’s from the ash heap God is seen. Always! Always from the ashes.”
Lent’s labor may be disconcerting, but it is never demeaning.
Lenten labor entails seeking whose presence we must foster, which whereabouts we must locate, and what constellation will be our guide through dark nights of the soul, wandering trackless terrain, parched lands and soggy bogs.
This journey’s purpose is reeducation about the nature of power, key to learning about the character of love. As God proclaims through the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit” (4:6).
Love, of course, is more than a kindly feeling or a cordial acquaintance. Love involves an expenditure of assets: time; attention; inconvenience; affection that endures even through turbulence; material sustenance; a willingness to risk one’s own security, reputation or social standing for those excluded from the table of plenty.
This is why saying we “love everybody” is an illusion because our assets — time and attention and material capacity, etc. — are finite. There are only so many hours in the day.
And the actual practice of compassion is more than mutual aid (worthy as that is). The distinction of loving relations, over against bartering, is generosity to those whose capacity to repay is in doubt (see Luke 6:32).
Needless to say, the spiritual disciplines and insights gained from Lenten labor are essential in every other season.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.