A Lenten Homily
As a university student, I used to plant trees in Northern Ontario as a summer job. It was hard work, rising early, planting as much as you could in the daylight and resting during the night. On occasion, on really, really nice days, when the morning planting had been going well, one of my favorite things to do would be, after my lunch break, to stretch out under a large tree and take a well earned nap. I would lie there in the darkness of a deep sleep, on a bed of moss, or of dry earth with a warm summer breeze blowing over me, until I would wake up to the light of the midday sun shining down on me through the cracks in the canopy of maple or oak or birch leaves that occupied the space between the light of the sun and my eyes.
I still recall those moments in vivid memory—those moments of waking, of blinking at the invading light, adjusting to being awake again, getting my bearings, taking stock of what the rest of the day held in store as I lay on the forest floor—in those moments, coming into the light was beautiful and sublime.
Of course, at other times in my life—like when my mom would throw open the curtains on a Monday morning at 7 am to rush me out of bed so that I would make it to school on time—coming into the light, being awakened by the brightness of the morning was a less than beautiful event…it was downright maddening for a teenager—in fact, it’s still downright maddening for a grown man, but that’s just between you and me.
You see, coming into the light can be, at times beautiful and, at other times, maddening—and sometimes, coming into the light, at its most intense, can be both at once. Think about the birth of a child. This beautiful act of coming into the light of the world is accompanied by pain, stress, crying, and maybe the occasional freak out by the attending husband (again, this is just between you and me)—you see, it’s madness and beauty all wrapped up together.
The light that invades and displaces the darkness is the light of God; in fact, here in John’s gospel light is another way of speaking about the life of God himself, who in Jesus assaults the darkness of the world. The shining of this light is itself both beauty and agony, which is something the season of Lent asks us to remember as we approach Good Friday where we learn that the beauty of God is all tied up in the agony and madness of the cross of Jesus.
Being drawn into this light is both maddening and beautiful. This light of God, this light that Jesus shines into our world displaces and dispels our darkness—which is beautiful in itself. But it’s maddening because, as Jesus says, we love the dark—and not just the darkness of a good sleep.
This passage in John comes on the heels of Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus to question him. He comes to Jesus, in the darkness of night. "Night" is, in the gospel of John always more than the darkness of night. It’s ignorance; it's sight, but it's an obscured sight; it’s confusion. It's odd to find Nicodemus here "by night". You see, Nicodemus is one who knows. He's a “leader” in the religious establishment, a smart person, a learned person, a church person, if you will. Nicodemus is us, those of us “on the inside track”—but he’s still in the dark.
We, as people, love the dark because it’s there that we feel safe, don’t we?; we feel safe because it’s only in the dark that we feel as if our secrets won’t betray us as they would if we found ourselves in the brightness of the light. In the light we can’t help but be exposed and that’s maddening because we don’t trust each other with our secrets, let alone do we trust God. We feel as if coming into the light might somehow expose us as in some way less than loveable by God and by each other—and that makes us anxious and fearful. Anyone who’s kept a secret, anyone who’s harbored a lie deep down within themselves knows this fear—and that’s to say we all know this fear. Not only fear, but this madness can easily slip into hatred of each other because it’s easier to hate each other than to live truthfully with each other.
But learning to blink at this light, as I like to think Nicodemus did when we find him later in the Gospel of John preparing Jesus' body for burial is what salvation is all about. Learning to slowly allow the light of God’s love to illumine our lives, darkness and all, learning to see the light of God’s love through the cracks in our lives is another way of speaking about conversion. Not many people experience the blinding light of God’s love like Paul did on the road to Damascus—though its been known to happen. No, for most of us, recognizing God’s light in our lives is a slow process; it’s a slow opening of the eyes, like after a deep and heavy sleep; the darkness doesn’t just vanish but as we learn to see in God’s light, as our eyes adjust to what life looks like, or ought to look like on God’s terms, we’ll notice that the darkness of our lives cannot help but be slowly exposed—and that that’s ok. We ought to be a community that trusts God and each other with our darkness, with our secrets. We are called as the church to learn to be a community that knows trust and love as living alternatives to fear and hatred.
Coming to the Lord’s table—being a eucharistic community—means that we commit ourselves, weekly, to a way of life where, whether we like it or not, we are implicated in living in the light. If I were honest with you, some weeks I’d rather hide in the darkness than to be implicated in this exposure…but again, this is just between you and me. Regardless of our proclivity for the absence of this light, the beauty of all of this is that God does love us and that God does transform us, in spite of ourselves, from lovers of the darkness to lovers of the light, from lovers of clandestine fear to lovers of the truth, the truth about ourselves, about God and about each other, no matter how maddening we might find that to be.
Let us pray.
Relentless God, you pursue us with your light; you invade our darkness with the maddening light of your Son Jesus. We’d rather live in the darkness and, if we were honest with ourselves, we’d rather you leave us alone. But you don’t. You pursue us, and you catch us; you catch us up in your love. And when we get past our compulsive desire to be alone—to be in the dark—we find ourselves in this community, implicated in your way of life as your eucharistic people. Prepare us again this morning to walk in your light and may we live that light into the darkness of our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.