#86 – By the tender mercy of our God…

7:25 am on December 6 at St. John’s Convent (Willowdale)

I woke up this morning at my second spiritual home – the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine. I parked myself at a particular window and watched the light increase through the trees facing St. John’s Rehab Hospital next door. I remembered the morning sky at home the day before -pink and yellow streaks amidst grey clouds in the big sky.

I recited the Song of Zechariah, anticipating our collective chanting of it in the chapel at Morning Prayer:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 2: 78-79, NRSV

It struck me again that the days become shorter and shorter during Advent, with the Longest Night at the winter solstice on December 21. When the nights are darkest and the days shortest, legend has it that the Christ Child was born.

So many phrases come to me from Scripture, Christmas carols and other Christian songs, speaking of light overcoming darkness.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. From the song “Christ, be our light” (Sing the Journey #54 ): “Longing for light we wait in darkness…Christ be our light.”
  2. Various songs from the Taize community, especially
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let not my doubt nor my darkness speak to me.
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let my heart always welcome your love.”
  3. The wonderful affirmation from John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:5, 9, NRSV).

But the play of light and darkness is not always as we first imagine. For there’s another biblical tradition about light and darkness, supported by mystics and by many fewer songs. This tradition indicates that God is working in the dark, perhaps in hidden, imperceptible ways.  The hope in this tradition is not necessarily for the light to shine and the darkness to please go away! The hope rather is to begin to accept and grasp God at work in the dark.

John Michael Talbot’s provocative song, “Holy darkness,” speaks of darkness as “Heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.” It affirms that “as we await you, O God of silence, We embrace your holy night.” Here’s the YouTube link if you’d like to listen to it.  Please note that all the indistinct words that could be either “night” or “light” in the song are actually “night.”

So… I want to keep chanting the Song of Zechariah, filled with hope.  I also want to keep exploring that other biblical tradition – the one where we accept the darkness and look for God’s unseen treasures within it.

A two-piano version of the Bach Chorale “Sheep Shall Safely Graze” always settles me, reminding me that sheep in an enclosure at night with a shepherd nearby are as “safe” – if not safer – than sheep grazing freely in the light during the day….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When and how have you welcomed the light?
  2. When and how – if at all – have you found God in the darkness?

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