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There is darkness in this world – terrible darkness. On Wednesday morning when I entered a nail salon where I planned to have a pedicure in preparation for my ordination to the priesthood – an event filled with light and life – I was greeted with television reports of yet another mass shooting. And the first thought that came into my head was, “not again – not again, Lord, not again.” And almost as a perfect echo of that thought my mother, who knows the effects of war more intimately than I ever may, said, “Not again. Not another one.”
But it was “another one” – another mass shooting on American soil, one which initially seemed particularly senseless. A seemingly average couple with a six-month old baby – a child for whom one of the victim’s held a baby shower – entered a building with the sole intent of killing those who called them friends. It now appears that one of the perpetrators held allegiance to a radical group, suggesting that terrorism may have been a motive in the shooting.
Motive or not, terror was the result of their actions – terror not just among the victims and their families, but within the hearts of many other Americans. My mother and I were surely not the only ones to say, “Not again.” We were not the only people to say, “How much more must we take?” We were surely not the only Christians to wonder, “how long will we dwell in darkness and the shadow of death”? And we were certainly not the only ones who questioned what we should do about it.
It is hard to know what to do in the face of such terror and profound darkness. And it is harder still for us as Christians to live in such darkness – but as Christians we do not have the luxury of ignoring it. As Christians we have the responsibility to fight that darkness. As Christians we must seek to dispel it – to serve as collective midwives who will birth the light that can end the darkness.
When I was a child, one of my favorite books was, “A Wrinkle in Time.” In it an awkward teenage girl named Meg, her friend Calvin, and her gifted younger brother Charles Wallace embark on an adventure to rescue her father, a scientist who has gone missing during an experiment with time travel. They are aided in their quest by three entities they think of as “ladies,” but whom they later discover to be much more than human. Prior to departing on their rescue mission, the ladies show them a celestial view of the earth and the children discover that it is covered by a shadow of darkness, the darkness of pure evil. According to the ladies, although this evil has shrouded our world for a long time it has not been able to overcome it because human beings continue to fight it. The children, expressing fear of the darkness and a sense of helplessness about overcoming it, wonder how it can be fought. In response they are told that all of the goodness in the universe fights with us and “that some of our very best fighters have come right from [our] own planet.” “Who,” the children ask, “have our fighters been”? They are given a clue: “And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” “Jesus,” they cry, “Why of course, Jesus!” And there are others – all of our great scientists, artists, prophets, and saints – and those whose faith is known to God alone. There is darkness in this world –yes – but there is also light, and all those who are willing to risk not just their lives but their souls to dispel the darkness and bring forth the light fight against evil.
That is what Christians do. That is what we must do. But how? Are we, like John the Baptist, to go out to the wilderness, crying for people to prepare the way of the Lord? Are we to tell our co-workers and friends that they must be baptized? Must we, as our Hebrew scripture tells us, be refined and purified – burned and shaped – like silver and gold? Because for many of us, the idea of leaving our comfortable lives and going out into a hostile and dangerous world to carry a message that is increasingly unpopular is enough to make us rethink our church affiliation.
Our reluctance is understandable, but it is not acceptable. We may not want to. We may even think we are unable to do it – God knows that. God knows each and every one of us far better than we know ourselves – and God does not ask us to do things we can’t. God does, however, demand that we do everything we can.
And scripture is pretty clear about what we can’t do. We can’t hide from the evil around us. We can’t contribute to the hatred we see. And we cannot give up in the face of it. Because Christianity is about hope. It may be that our faith defines us as Christians, but it is our ability to hope in the face of what seems hopeless that distinguishes us from other belief systems. Although we recognize the cyclic nature of time, as Buddhists do, and the alienation from God present in this age, as do the Hindus, and believe in some form of judgment prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of God, like our Abrahamic brethren, we as Christians wait patiently and with joy for our Lord. We hold dear our hope in a kingdom of light – a kingdom that will come quickly and without warning – a kingdom in which “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth and ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
But we won’t see it if we are preoccupied with hiding from what is evil. We won’t see it if we are too determined to hold on to what we have. We won’t see it if we linger too long in the darkness. But oh my beloved brothers and sisters, how hard it is not to do those things. How hard it is to be unafraid in the presence of such fearsome wickedness. How hard it is to move through the darkness and into the light. And the more we have to lose, the easier it is to be afraid of losing it – of letting go – of leaving behind.
I recently read that the invention of artificial light was the result of a spiritual as well as a technological quest – suggesting that our ability to generate our own light has significantly changed how we relate to God. Prior to the invention of artificial light, living in darkness created the desire for light – and true light was believed to reside with God. But now that we control light, our desire for divine light has waned. With our ability to provide light whenever and wherever we want it, modern human beings can see both more clearly and farther than our ancestors could. And we wonder what God’s light can offer us that Thomas Edison’s can’t. But our ability to see has dimmed our capacity to imagine. We have begun to believe that we are the only light-bringers. That we can fight poverty, illness, and environmental ruin by ourselves. That all light is within and from us – and that we can choose to keep it for ourselves.
But that is not who we are. Christians do not live solely in the present. We do not live only to avoid judgment. The kingdom we crave cannot be built by human hands. As Christians we believe in more – in a greater light – and we prepare for it – without fear. And that light is not far away. It is not, as medieval Christians thought, in a place called heaven. It is not, as many millennial Christians believe, in a future place called the kingdom of God. It is in us – and it is our responsibility to spread it.
This is our time. The season of Advent is a time of new things, of renewal – and of transformation. That may scare you, but it needn’t. Because Christ is not only within us, he is among us. Christ’s light is within each of us – but that doesn’t mean we are each required to serve as John the Baptist did. Making straight the pathway of the Lord is not the job of any one of us. It is the job of every one of us – acting together as a community. That is what it means to say Christ is among us. And there are things that we can do as individuals and as a community to push back the darkness that is also among us – the darkness we have seen in San Bernadino and Paris and Baltimore and New York and Lebanon and Palestine and Syria and in so many places in this world where that dark shadow hovers. We can do what the Philippians did. We can hold one another in our hearts. We can confirm and defend the gospel in word and action. We can share what we have. And we can pray without ceasing. These are things I know you can do – because you have done them for me. You have brought light into my life – and now I am asking you to take that light and let it shine everywhere you go. And I pray for you. Like Paul, I pray that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best,” and that your tender compassion will guide you in the way of peace and shine in the darkness – and I know, that with Christ among us, the darkness with never overcome it. AMEN.
Madeleine L’Engle, (1962), A Wrinkle in Time, [New York: Dell], pp. 88-89.