Symbols are rarely unambiguous. Even the image of the dove or the lion has its shadow. Water is life-giving, but it can take away your life just as surely. It may cleanse, but it is also treacherous. Fire is furious; fire is comforting. Clouds have silver linings. Countless images have their positive and negative faces.
So it is with night. Nights have starry skies that inspire philosophers like Kant and artists like van Gogh. The night brings rest and quiet. It signals not only endings, but expectancy.
But night, at least in Advent-time, has less ambiguity than most imagery. It is something to escape. Utter night, without the promise of morning, is deepest gloom. Endless night, without the glow of candle or star, is a void. Even ordinary and partial night is more scary than starry.
It is best we sleep in the dark. At night violent armies clash. Streets clatter with shouts and gunfire, sometimes even until the break of dawn. Debaucheries, betrayals, carousing are heard faintly in the distance. Nearby, once “the night is far spent,” Paul phrases it, the stumbling home from wild desires sounds a city night’s death-knell.
Sudden shadows that leap and loom trouble us at night far more than the tame shadows of daytime. If we are startled from a midnight sleep, we may feel a terror greater than at any other time: some gaping darkness, some unexpected anxiety, some uncovered dread. If we sleep again, our unconscious has its say, unkempt, untrammeled, unmanageable in its better dreams, horrific in its nightmares.
Sadly, even in the day we often sleep-walk as we eat, drink, and parent, too often unknowing and unconcerned. When we do manage to stir ourselves to action, we routinely play out a strident score written by our conductor of night—the dark unconscious. Freud’s find, the libido, stalks the world day and night for prey or power or pleasure. Our quarrels, jealousies, and wars are works of darkness, even though they haunt our days.
Darkness was the lifeless void of Genesis, the ninth ominous plague of Egypt foreshadowing its terrible tenth: the death of all firstborn.
The Fourth Gospel announced God as light in whom there is no darkness, the light that shines in human night, irradiating our world. It was light, the First Letter of John would teach, that opened the way to life and love.
Paul advises the Romans (they themselves knew their dreadful nights) to be conscious of the day. They are to live now what they want forever. Salvation is nigh, Paul says. Be awake. Walk with the armor of light.
The Ephesians were to be children of the day, awake and vigilant. “Wake from your sleep, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you (Eph 5:14).”
Since we do not know the time when our lives stop or the earth melts, every day must be one of presence. Vigilance is for now. The watchful eye, the expectant heart, is for this moment. If we are sleep-walking our way through life, now is the time to “come to.”
Advent. Enter. To “come to.” To wake up. To enter life, here and today. Let God enter it all and now. And let us enter it all, even the darkness, now with God.
If we go into our lives and permit God to enter with us, then we shall see, even though it be night. Revelation—enlightenment—will come to us, not in shrouded nightmare, but upon a midnight clear. Then we shall no longer be the walking dead. And even though we walk through the valley of darkness, no evil shall we fear.
The clamor of the streets will be stilled, for it will be a silent night. The deceptions of the dark will be uncovered, for it will be a holy night. Night itself will be transformed, transfigured, when all is calm, when all is bright.
And we shall sing with Zechariah his canticle of illumination, a song of the life that is light.
In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.