“The light is with you a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.” (John 12:35)
As one who has spent time camping in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, I can vouch for the importance and great value of having a Coleman Lantern on the trip with you; as far as I’m concerned it’s the one thing that really cuts through a dark, enveloping night in the middle of nowhere! Purists would argue that it’s the light of a campfire that truly does the job, but firelight is fleeting and can’t be moved; likewise, the beam of a flashlight is narrow and limited, not to mention at the mercy of a battery! But a lantern can illuminate the entire campsite and draw hordes of blackflies at the same time!
That said, even the mighty Coleman Lantern can run out of fuel; and if you’ve been out in the woods at night when that’s happened, it’s very interesting. At first, the change is almost imperceptible: the light of the lantern starts to fade, but it doesn’t seem all that different; a little less brilliant, perhaps, and a tad more subdued. But after a few moments the light does start to dim considerably, with things you could see clearly before losing their detail and focus. Even the campsite begins to feel like it’s closing in around you, because the light that was once flooding all around now just exists in a tiny glow surrounded by this vast darkness. And you sit there and you watch the light of the lantern’s mantle until it finally just… goes out… and now it’s very, very dark indeed.
One of the prevailing images of the Christian faith, one that’s found throughout scripture, is that of light. And in the church it’s an image we carry with us as we make our way through the seasons of our faith and the gospel story: for instance, during Advent, we tell of the prophets’ promise of a light that is to come; at Christmas, we celebrate that light’s coming in Jesus, who is the light of the world; and during Epiphany, we rejoice in discovering the meaning and great expanse of that light.
But now we’re deep into the season of Lent, in which scripturally and spiritually we’re drawing ever closer to the cross… and it’s different. As the days pass and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, we begin to see that the light is slowly growing dim; and it’s clear that the walls of darkness are starting to close in around Jesus and his disciples. Jesus himself confirms this as he tells the crowd at Jerusalem that “just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (12:24) for it to bear fruit, so also is he moving inexorably toward his death. There’s no avoiding the darkness that’s to come; indeed, very soon now this brilliant light would be extinguished through acts of betrayal, desertion, humiliation and finally, an excruciating death on a wooden cross.
Speaking both pastorally and personally, this growing and inevitable darkness is one of the most difficult aspects of our shared journey through Lent and into Holy Week; and yet, it’s precisely in the midst of this darkness that we discover what God’s plan has been all along. As Jesus proclaims it, “the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified;” (v. 23) understanding that this is a glory of another kind; not glory in the sense of worldly patterns of power or popularity; but divine glory that is revealed in suffering and death. Truly, in what the world regarded as unabashed tragedy and the triumph of evil — the very Son of God crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity – in fact our God was proven victorious over sin and death forever, and in the process true and lasting light revealed itself to the whole world, never to be extinguished again.
And if all of this sounds like contradiction on a cosmic scare, you’re right: it’s in fact the one glorious paradox that lies at the heart of our Christian faith: that our life, our true life, comes about through death. By our human way of thinking, that makes little sense; we recognize that a seed that falls to the ground will likely die forever; but by God’s intent, it’s the seed’s dying that is required for it to bear fruit. Likewise, the execution of one man on a cross would not only signal for us the end of a life, but also the end of a movement and the end of hope; our logic says that whatever it was the man stood for would be dead and gone along with the man. But that’s not how God views it; in fact, it’s ever and always been God’s plan that the death of this man, his incarnation on earth, would serve as the ultimate act of love. This was the means to conquer death forever, and how God would assure his closeness to you and to me in this life, and in the life to come.
What we’re talking about here is the difference between what the Greeks described as chronos becoming kairos, which simply put, is what happens when our time (chronos) becomes God’s time (kairos). It’s what happens when God comes to work a blessing even into our worst moments of suffering; it’s what happens when God enters into our places of pain and fear and anger and regret and sin to bring us closer to him and make us a place in his kingdom; it’s what happens when God comes even into our deep, encroaching darkness to bring light.
And despite how intently that darkness will seek to overtake us, the good news is that this light will prevail.
This is an important truth for us to remember, not only in these Lenten days of reflection, but also in all of our days as we make our way through life’s myriad challenges. Indeed, many are the times in this life that we are left feeling as though the light that has illumined the way for us is as diminished as a failing lantern; and yet, even as it seems that this darkness will overtake us, we discover that there’s a greater light that will prevail; if only we’ll let it in. Ours is the God who is relentless in coming to us even amidst the deepest of this world’s darkness and our own capacity; ours is a divine and graceful love that is determined to transform our times of difficulty and loss into moments of victory and wonder, bringing us unending light that will prevail for the way now and forever, and in the process, making you and me “children of light” (v. 36)
And as any serious north woods camper will tell you, that’s the kind of light you need when you are mired in the darkness!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry