God’s beautiful dark works
Perhaps one of the best-known verses in the New Testament is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It comes toward the end of a deep conversation between Nicodemus, a leader of his people, and Jesus. Much has been made about the detail that Nicodemus sought out Jesus at night. Was he afraid to be seen? Was this a stealthy move under the cover of darkness?
This encounter isn’t usually regarded as Nicodemus’ finest hour. The mention of night casts a shadow (pun intended) on this holy meeting. Darkness and blackness and night are too often contrasted with lightness and whiteness and day, and found deficient. But I want to consider the beautiful dark works of God.
“In the beginning … darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2). Creation began in the dark. The mysterious outpouring of God’s love that brought all things into being, and continues creating and sustaining the universe and all that is in it, was the beautiful dark work of God.
When Abram began to doubt God’s faithfulness, the Lord took him on a walk and, pointing to the midnight sky, said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. ... So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). Jacob wrestled all night with God and was irrevocably changed. Samuel heard a voice calling to him in the dark and became a mighty prophet. At midnight, the Lord passed over Egypt and set the people free.
The Messiah’s birth was announced by angels to shepherds in the dark. Jesus’ Passion began and his Holy Supper was given “on the night in which he was betrayed.” When he was crucified, it was dark from noon to 3. The redemption of all creation was a beautiful dark work of God.
Presiding Bishop Emeritus H. George Anderson was asked to comment on the Crystal Cathedral (now Christ Cathedral)—the glass structure filled with light. He observed that light didn’t allow spaces for dark where one could sense the mystery of God. King Solomon understood that when, at the dedication of the temple, he declared, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 King 8:12). The glory of God is shielded and revealed in darkness. It is incomprehensible and irresistible.
Back to Nicodemus. Maybe he was experiencing his own “dark night of the soul” when he came looking for Jesus. This expression has come to stand for doubt and angst and emptiness. That’s not how St. John of the Cross meant it. He understood it to be the beginning of his journey toward union with God, toward communion with Love. I think Nicodemus was looking for the same thing, and he found it. It was in this middle-of-the-night, heart-of-darkness promise that Jesus revealed to Nicodemus the intention God had for the world God so loved.
Darkness isn’t a symbol of emptiness, or godforsakenness. It’s not synonymous with everything that is dry and barren and lifeless. Nine chapters later in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:24). I think of the rich, black soil of my native Ohio. Each spring it brings abundant life. Single grains become many; individuals become community. As Sister Joan Chittister wrote: “Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”
By tradition, the Resurrection is heralded at night during the Easter Vigil. In this beautiful liturgy people gather in the darkness and hear the ancient words: “This is the night when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt. This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death.”
The liberation of God’s people, Israel, and the redemption of all creation are the beautiful dark works of God.
A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. This column originally appeared in Living Lutheran’s August 2020 issue. Reprinted with permission.