Dark Night of the Soul
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
It’s a blue Christmas for John the Baptist. He paces back and forth in his narrow cell. Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions the choices he’s made. Last Sunday, he seemed so sure of himself. John preached a baptism of fire and spirit in the wilderness beside the Jordan. But now, facing death, he’s not so sure. He sends messengers to question Jesus. “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
Some might hand out demerits to John for his lack of faith. But not Jesus. He does not put John on the naughty list. Jesus doesn’t throw John under the bus. Questions and doubts are not enough to rupture their relationship or call into question John’s loyalty and dedication. As we say every Sunday, ‘Wherever you are, whatever your background, regardless of your doubts and questions, you are welcome in this community of faith.’
“Truly,” Jesus said, “I tell you no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). Yet, this is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—even though many of us, and, if we are honest, have lived some version of it. We like conversion stories that go straight from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy and stay there. Yet, John’s story doesn’t follow this happy trajectory. It’s an anti-conversion story. “John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt. From boldness to hesitation. From knowing to unknowing. From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “Has It All Been For Nothing?”, 12-8-19). All our striving, all our planning, all our praying and hoping— has it all been for nothing?
We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness? In the sixteenth century, another John, Saint John of the Cross, would call it the dark night of the soul. We might judge ourselves for it. Jesus doesn’t. Notice, Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. What was happening to John wasn’t fair. The stupid capricious power of King Herod cut John’s life short. This gospel teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, rage, and shake our fist at God –as many psalmists do.
Yet, honestly, I think there is something more hidden within this gospel. Some wisdom that waits to open for us whenever we, like John, come close to treading on despair. In fact, something like the disillusionment John experienced may even be necessary for us to glimpse the joy and hope that comes from God alone. Of course, Advent is perfect for this. Our ancestors in faith passed down stories like this one about John to rekindle the spirit, to restore our imagination precisely in times when everything appears hopeless, to help us endure our own dark night of the soul.
Fears of the apocalypse seem to be everywhere in popular culture. There was Planet of the Apes and Mad Max. The Blade Runner and the Matrix. Zombies—lots of zombies. In Star Wars, The Hunger Games, and the endless Avenger series, good battles evil on a cosmic scale. Yes. The Advent blues seem to fit us like an old pair of jeans. In the 1950’s we were so sure of ourselves, so confident about the future. We had conquered the evil of fascism and overcome the great depression. Now our addiction to an economy of extraction, the politics of fear, an endless war on terrorism, the rise of Christian nationalism, and the propagation (seemingly) everywhere of religion that fosters hate rather than love, clouds our optimism for the future with fear. In the darkness of night, the question creeps into consciousness—has it all been for nothing?
Our ancestors in faith knew this moment would come. They packed the mysterious themes and images of apocalypse into the bible to open and reveal their wisdom in just such a time as this. After all, they knew about disillusionment. They too, experienced desolation. The economy we worshipped, the privilege and high esteem in which we held ourselves is coming to an end. Yes, they council, but do not fear. These are but the birth pangs, the beginning of wisdom which holds the cure to warring madness. Could we dare to hope the world is about to turn?
See, our ancestors bequeathed to us the key that opens the gates of the New Jerusalem. Faith in Jesus unlocks our fear and frees our imagination to glimpse the world God intends which is already here and not yet. We are meant to be citizens of this counter world in partnership with creation, where love is love, and beauty is revealed in the harmony of contrasts. We are called to walk by faith into the heart of God’s vision for life together that God will show us.
But Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it. The baby born in a barn will die a criminal death. John’s death will be both tragic and dumb—a travesty of injustice. To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother and lock him away at home. How does Jesus answer?
Our reading today describe at least eighteen — eighteen! — sorts of people in pain who might be forgotten by the world but who are nevertheless remembered by God: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then, my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts” (Daniel Clendenin). God’s heroes may suffer violence, yet they are not the ones who inflict it.
This holy season of Advent invites us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world. To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice. To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror. To feel deeply because that’s exactly what God does. (Thomas)
In the gloom of his prison cell, Jesus prepared John to meet the living God who is always more, who’s coming is always different, whose power is always greater and more glorious than we could have imagined. See, the Lord Jesus stoops from heaven to put a new song in our heart. See, Christ comes to walk with us. Jesus enters our life with comfort and courage no matter how messy or fraught with ugly strife, bickering or bitterness. Jesus comes not in wrath but in love; not as one who seeks to destroy, but as one with power to transform and renew. Jesus took on flesh and lived among us. This spirit of Christ is upon you. Our dark night is ending. The first light of hope breaks now as the dawn.