Raleigh Mennonite Church
“To be a Christian does not mean knowing all the answers; to be a Christian means being willing to live in the part of the self where the question is born.”
-Wendy M Wright
It is not my constitution to stay awake late. But one night earlier this year I set my alarm for two a.m. Groggy, I shifted a blanket around my shoulders and shuffled down the hall to Tennyson’s room. I gathered her against my chest and whispered, “it’s time.”
We went out to the concrete slab that leads into our backyard. The warm heat of late spring had given way to a surprising cool here in the middle of the night. My daughter sat on my lap in a rickety lawn chair, staring at the sky. We waited for stars to fall from the sky.
Advent is the time when we make room for the dark, the time when we stay awake, making ourselves readying ourselves for the discomfort to see things anew.
Here in the dark shepherds will tend their flocks.
Here in the dark magi will gather for escape from King Herod.
Here in the dark Mary will wake, a new feeling, a tenseness rippling up her round belly as she wonders, is it time?
Here in the dark a family will flee to Egypt.
Here in the dark a woman stays awake, waiting for a thief, ready, waiting, waiting in the dark.
Each Advent we begin where we ended, each new year welcoming us into an apocalypse. This apocalypse is a disclosure, a revelation, something hidden that is revealed. But instead of something brought to light, we discover that we are feeling the outline of something we do not understand, trying to feel for the edges. We’re asked to wait a little while longer.
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
These are the words of the “little apocalypse” near the end of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a dizzying, confusing description, filled with passive verbs and unclear objects. There’s a cryptic reference to the few saved alongside Noah, the others swept into the flood. We hear that two will be in a field, one taken and one left. Two will be milling grain, one taken and one left.
The language is confusing. Is the one taken saved? Or taken into the flood? The one left – is she spared from death or does she remain on a desolate earth? How can we find ourselves within this confusion, not knowing whether we are staying alert to leave or to remain?
And what happens to the one who waits up for the thief? Is her presence enough to frighten him away? Does she confront the thief, fight him off? Or does she recognize that he isn’t a thief at all, that he’s a friend? Does she invite him in?
I wonder if this is the intention of the writer. The ambiguity of this prophecy makes it difficult to know which we are waiting for, impossible to align ourselves with end-time winners. There’s too much unknown, too much confusion. Instead we’re asked to sit here with the owner of the house, ready for the unexpected to greet us at any time. Perhaps the readiness in Matthew is that are willing to sit in this unknown, without having it worked out for us, without being able to stake a claim. Perhaps we’re asked to press deeper into the disorientation and terror of the text.
The ancient rabbis believed the Messiah would come in the night. Perhaps that was because darkness is the time when our senses are disoriented, because darkness is a time when we cannot help but see things in a different way. In the dark we’re not entirely sure who it is who stands on the stoop, picking at the lock, whether this one is here to aid or to harm, to surprise or to comfort.
In today’s Gospel, I’m drawn into the between time, when the owner of the house waits in the darkness, after everyone else has gone to sleep, before the thief arrives. In Advent I’m drawn into those long, sleepy hours where she waits, expectant, keeps gazing out into the night with nothing to be seen. We are there with her, watching shadows turn trees into sculptures, the night turnings friends into strangers, learning the different shades of dark, how, even with no moon, we are still, miraculously, able to see.
We see, but we also see differently in the dark. We rely on other senses. We must walk slower than we have, to give attention to our steps, the rise and root of the ground, to give careful attention to one another, to accept the not seeing fully, to make ourselves comfortable with knowing little, to situate ourselves in uncertainty.
The painter Jan Richardson reminds us that, “Advent challenges us to resist recoiling and instead to press into the insecurity and unsettledness of this passage—and of our lives. Advent beckons us beyond the certainties that may not serve us—those sureties we have relied on that may have no substance to them after all. Advent is a season to look at what we have fashioned our lives around—beliefs, habits, convictions, prejudices—and to see whether these leave any room for the Christ who is so fond of slipping into our lives in guises we may not readily recognize.”
If you have kept awake in the dark then you know how different the world becomes, how the world at night is both strange and familiar at the same time. Darkness makes space to see the world in a different way, to see each other, to see ourselves in new ways, to make space for “the part of the self where the question is born.”
We all know there are many kinds of darkness. John of the Cross, the sixteenth century monk, distinguishes between two types. One kind of darkness is the kind we should fear, from which we should rightfully turn. But there is another kind, oscura, which means “difficult to see.” John reminds us that God puts out the lights to keep us safe “because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going.” Only when there are no more maps, no compasses, no more lights to direct the way are we fully vulnerable to God.
Advent gives us space to be friendly with the dark, to see what emerges, to give ourselves over to God and to see what happens next. This lesson is brought to life in the tradition of Byzantine icons. Today, and in most post-Renaissance art, painters begin with a figure fully illuminated. Once the figure is painted, he adds on the details of shadow, always working towards creating atmospheric light.
But Eastern Byzantine art inverts this process. The writer begins with dark colors, a base of brown or black for the face of the saint they plan to paint. These paintings begin in shadow. Slowly and steadily, the artist, the writer as they’re called, adds lighter shades. Transparent layer by transparent layer, something begins to emerge.
It may be that a practice for you this Advent season is to spend some time in the dark. It’s easy to do, no late nights required, the sun setting so early here in late autumn. You can think about taking a little time each evening to be present in the dark world, the unsettled, unfamiliar world. Perhaps will discover that the one walking down the street, the one whose face we cannot make out, the thin outline in shadow is not a thief but the risen Lord.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark 146.