Sermon,  Sermons

Between the Night and First Light

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An author that I’m inspired by these days is Joan Chittister. Her way of thinking resonates with how I am hearing God. Recently, something she wrote was posted in a daily email blog I read, and found it salient to this night.

“Psychologists tell us that one of the most difficult conditions a person can be forced to bear is light deprivation. Darkness, in fact, is often used in military captivity or penal institutions to break down an individual’s sense of self. Once a person becomes disoriented, once they lose a sense of where they are . . . once they can no longer feel in control of their physical surroundings—a person loses a sense of self. Every shred of self-confidence shrivels. The giant within them falls and they become whimpering prey of the unknown. The natural instinct to be combative is paralyzed by fear. The spirit of resistance weakens. The prisoner becomes more pliable, more submissive, more willing to take directions.

It disarms a person, this fall into the sinkhole of sensory deprivation. It can drive them to madness. It is, every military knows, an effective technique. . . .

Simple as it may seem, when the lights go out, we simply lose our bearings. The density of the dark makes it impossible for us to fix our positions anymore. We find ourselves alone in the universe, untethered and unprepared. . . . Lightlessness leaves us no internal compass by which to trace or set our steps. Unlike [the] blind, few [sighted people] ever learn to develop our other senses enough to rely on them for information about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Interestingly enough, it is those who consider themselves sighted who are most limited without light. And so, in the end, the [dimness] undermines the average [sighted] person’s self-confidence, affects their vision, leaves them totally vulnerable to the environment and out of touch with the people around them. And that is only its physical effects.

The darkness of the soul is no less spiritually punishing than is the loss of physical light to the psyche. We talk about faith but cannot really tolerate the thought of it. It’s light we want, not shadow, certainty not questions. The aphotic, the place without images, is no less an attack on faith and hope than those periods in life when nighttime brings nothing but unclarity, nothing but fear. Where am I going? the soul wants to know. When will this be over? the mind wants to know. How can I get out of this sightless place I’m in? the heart demands.”

Joan Chittister (Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (Image: 2015), 17-19), by way of Richard Rohr (, 12/03/2019)

Chittister evokes the 16th century Spanish Mystic, St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, a poem about the stages a soul must go through to experience oneness with God. He called them, Stanzas of the Soul:

  1. On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!— I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
  2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!— In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
  3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
  4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.
  5. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
  6. Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone, There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
  7. The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks; With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
  8. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

Suspending all my senses, is another translation of the 7th stanza. He explains that it is only at this point of utter senselessness, complete light deprivation of the soul – and all the senses, to boot! – it is only at this sense deprivation that one can experience union with God. Much like when we listen for when the sound ends and the silence begins – it is in that space that cannot be defined (though we learned a great Japanese word that comes close: Ma, the sound of silence).

And it is in this darkest night of the year that God pierced time and space entering the utter darkness of the world, to be the light of, and to, all creation.

This light who guides us “more surely that the noonday” to where Jesus is already waiting. To be one with us, with me, with you, – and only here, in the darkness that the beloved is joined with the love, Lover transformed in the Beloved!

All of us have known our fair share of darkness. And when, at our darkest moments we cannot bear to even be seen by anyone else, the pain and fear of it so profound, that our, that my soul is best ready to commune with Jesus at the very center.

It is true that when physically blinded, “Lightlessness leaves us no internal compass by which to trace or set our steps.” But it is precisely this state of the soul – senseless (and it is a suspension of senses, not the eradication of them, as God created us with senses to experience the fullness of the life given us), senselessness exposes the inner being to the rapture, complete abandon to Jesus’ healing, transforming embrace.

It is in the darkness that our internal compass is a reality because that compass is the Christ, through whom all things were made, the Mother who bore the world, gave birth to everything – this Christ, who ordered the boundaries of the waters, the edges of cascading cliffs, the expanses of fields in which we attempt to cultivate our corn –

Christ, the Way, Truth, and Life, IS the Light

“Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure”

— Paradise Lost, Book 7, lines 224–229

The Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us, came into this world in the most vulnerable state: a naked, unequivocally dependent infant, an itty bitty of a baby whose birth we celebrate this dark night. God-with-us was born to a vulnerable teenaged young woman who also experienced the reality of every aspect of motherhood.

Samantha forwarded this poem to me – and when our kids notice something meaningful, it’s prudent to notice. Indeed, it is relevant here. It begins:

Sometimes I wonder

if Mary breastfed Jesus.

If she cried out when he bit her

or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

And sometimes I wonder

if this is all too vulgar

to ask in a church

full of men

without milk stains on their shirts

or coconut oil on their breasts

preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

            But then I think of feeding Jesus,

birthing Jesus,

the expulsion of blood

and smell of sweat,

the salt of a mother’s tears

onto the soft head of the salt of the earth,

feeling lonely

and tired





and I think,

if the vulgarity of birth is not

honestly preached

by men [all] who carry power but not burden,

who carry privilege but not labor,

who carry authority but not submission,

then it should not be preached at all.

Because the real scandal of the Birth of


lies in the cracked nipples of a

14 year old

and not in the sermons of ministers

who say women

are too delicate

to lead.


And once we abandon our senses – that space between the darkest of the darkest, longest night and the first light of a new day – senses suspended, the Christ born in the most vulnerable state to one of the most vulnerable people in her time-space (a teenaged, unmarried young woman), in whom God, the Creator of everything,

this Christ, through whom all things were made, the Mother who bore the world, gave birth to everything – this Christ, who ordered the boundaries of the waters, the edges of cascading cliffs – our internal compass –

IS the Light Who guides us into transformation

This light who guides us “more surely that the noonday” to where Jesus is already waiting. To be one with us, with me, with you, – and only here, in the darkness that the beloved is joined with the love, Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Have we lost the profundity of what Christmas means to the universe? To us?

And to further help us understand that profundity, we found in the movie, the Grinch – though this song is not performed by Cindy Loo Who, but by the Pentatonics:

“Where Are You Christmas?”

Together, let us be present to the night, this longest night (I know, technically, it was 3 nights ago…) let us be present to the night. Be vulnerable. Suspended senses.

Steeped in the profound Peace of this night.

Steady in the Hope of the new day.

Nurtured by a joy that is a reality beyond sensing.

Provoked to Trust a God who trusted a young woman to carry, give birth to, and raise the Mother to all Creation.

Ready, in the darkness, to be joined with Love, to be transformed in the Beloved.

Pay attention to that space between the darkness of the Night and the First Light of the new day. Be changed. Be transformed.

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