Walking Toward the Light
As we enter the season of Epiphany and the theme of light and brightness has entered the shadowlands, I thought I would write about how I have journeyed toward the light during what has been an unusually shadowy season. It has not been an easy Advent, but it has been a deep Advent and the gift it gave me was the absence of light.
Isaiah chapter 9 verses 2-7 are a familiar text used during Christmas – it references the hopelessness of God’s people in captivity to Babylon, calling them “those who lived in a land of deep darkness.” And it juxtaposes living in the shadow places with something altogether different – the experience of light breaking through. The prophet writes, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
The journey toward Christmas is summarized in that verse. Moving through Advent means a willingness to walk and live and be present in the land of shadows, holding hope that at some point, the night will be illuminated.
I wonder how we can identify with the prophet’s words if we ourselves haven’t spent time in the land of shadows. I wonder how and if we can understand the magnitude of illumination if we haven’t suffered the absence of light.
I’ve noticed that some of us have a habit, which I think is culturally induced, of responding to people who are in the midst of sorrow or grief or sadness with well-meaning suggestions for how to “recover.” And I suspect that we respond in the way we do because we ourselves are so uncomfortable with suffering. The less we are reminded of suffering, the more unlikely we will have to engage our own suffering – so we do our best to insulate ourselves from it.
The trouble with that response is that our capacity to be deeply spiritual, connected beings is never greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted. (1)
Spirituality and hope are borne in the shadowy places – in vulnerability and brokenness. Spirituality isn’t religion or tradition, nor is it that ambiguous Zeitgeist of the “spiritual but not religious.” Spirituality is the willingness to live fully human lives, to know – profoundly – who we are and to recognize the sense we have of Otherness, something beyond ourselves. It is a deep hunger for transcendent relationality.
I have never met a person who has developed a deep spirituality outside of the land of shadows. This is not to say that they permanently reside in that place – on the contrary, having dwelt in the dusk seems to make them more prepared to take up residence in the light, when it comes to them. If we want to be spiritual beings, we will have to be willing to enter into suffering.
This is where the light of Christmas breaks into Advent. In the midst of brokenheartedness, light shatters our suffering. Shockingly, the light that comes to us is just as vulnerable and fragile as we are. As though God understands our hesitance to be vulnerable, God goes before us. Wrapped in vulnerability, God comes to us as Emmanuel – the God who will struggle alongside us.
The illumination of Christmas doesn’t mean the suffering is over – because we’ve journeyed through the shadows of Advent doesn’t mean that we’ve entered the land of light. After tomorrow, the winter will still be long. But Christmas is a reminder that divine persistence has and does disrupt the shadows.
A lesser-used Christmas text from Isaiah is chapter 62 verses 6 through 12. Verse 12 refers to the naming of people and place … “And you shall be called, ‘Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.’”
This is another piece of prophecy – a promise that God will reconcile the people of God. It was for the people of Israel, but it is as much for us, too.
There are those among us who are journeying in the land of shadows, those for whom suffering is a constant companion. This journey might just be our greatest gift. This is where we will meet our spirituality, if we are willing to lean in with vulnerability. This is where we will learn to hope – born as a function of our struggle…we will learn it because we have experienced what it means to need it. This is the place we will hear God reminding us of our name – Sought Out, Persons Not Forsaken. And this is where we will recognize the light, when it comes to us, breaking the grip of suffering and death.
What kind of deliverance do you need? What is the good news you are waiting to hear? Even if you have given up, it is waiting for you. Death has lost its grip. The light has broken in. God is as present in the shadows as in the light. But within the shadows, we will learn who we are. Within them, we will learn that we are not forsaken. Within them, we will learn how to identify the light and receive the hope of the Holy One, born in struggle, born in vulnerability. May you recognize the significance of the baby in the manger – may you be overwhelmed (if only for a moment) by the love of Emmanuel, the God who will not forsake you – who journeys with you – who will deliver you into the light. May it be so.
(1) Brené Brown says something similar – that our capacity to be wholehearted humans is never greater than our capacity to be brokenhearted.