In darkness the world is not the same as in the day, right? Although it’s just about one little thing: light.
I was supposed to write about the symbolism of a lit candle, but … I must first write about the symbolism of darkness and night, although I hadn’t intended to.
Nights can be beautiful. Especially when illuminated by moonlight and the stars twinkle in the sky. It’s great to sit wrapped in a blanket in the garden or with friends around the chiminea. However, the night is often not associated with anything good. Especially when there is little or no light. Making your way home alone in the dark? Going somewhere beyond the streetlight? The very thought makes it unpleasant. In darkness there is uncertainty, fear, and sometimes terror. Mostly irrational, and yet . . . It is sometimes so dark that you really don’t know which way to turn or where to go; you cannot see anything. Therefore, those who go into the night to immerse themselves in its beauty (but always with some source of light) are often viewed as a little crazy. And those who, by chance and unwillingly, get lost in the darkness of the night, longingly wait for the dawn. Because the rising sun conquers all those night fears. Although in principle virtually none of the dangers, apart from the possibility of twisting an ankle or breaking your nose in the dark, are really eradicated by the light. The world in sunlight, or even only the light of many LEDs, seems much friendlier. You know which way to turn, where to go.
The darkness and the night are also something to hide in. So, it’s better to deal with all dark deeds during the night. I can’t be seen, so my evil deeds will go unpunished. Nobody will even say a word against me, because they will have no idea what I’ve done. Hence, darkness or night are also a type of symbol of evil and iniquity. Especially evil without fear of punishment . . .
There is also something else at night that can be disturbing, and which, although we have a sense of it, we probably rarely think about. Ah, we go to bed and go to sleep. And oh, it’s as if we ceased to exist for a few hours. We seem for these few hours to have died. Will we wake up? Or maybe this sleeping will turn out to mean death? I won’t be aware that I am dying even at the moment just before it. The great unknown into which we enter every evening . . . .
Thus, there is in darkness and night something of confusion and dread; of evil and iniquity, and finally also of what seems to us as the greatest evil – death. In the biblical tradition we also find these gut feelings regarding darkness. It first appears in the pages of the Bible before the first ray of light appears in the world; when God creates heaven and earth, darkness covers the vastness of the waters, and only His Spirit is over the waters. Only then, thanks to God’s intervention, this shapeless and perhaps quite gloomy world blossoms with light and life. And only then in the illuminating glow of celestial bodies does it become the home of man.
The night, darkness . . . There are numerous associations in the Bible to the difficulties and fears the night brings. When Israel come out of Egypt in was preceded by a pillar of cloud which at night became a pillar of fire. For the chosen it lights the way, for the pursuers it is a darkness which prevents them from dealing with the escapees. Or the psalmist too, that he promises that whoever God cares for will not fear the terror of the night. And Isaiah, comparing the oppression of the Chosen People to the night, and in the name of God promises: “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light” . . . . Because without God, even in broad daylight it is dark: in the soul of the person who lives without the hope, which God gives to us.
There’s also the darkness of the space in which we hide (of course, unsuccessfully) from God. Such an entry into darkness is mentioned by the psalmist while at the same time pointing out that it is impossible. Job wants to hide in the darkness from God and from the world, beaten down by misfortune. And we have a good many references to this symbolic darkness, by way of a space (apparently) without God in, the New Testament. Through the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, Jesus is compared to the sun that shines upon “those in darkness, those who dwell in the shadow of death”. Similarly, the disciples of Christ are likened to lamps that are intended to be placed on a lampstand so as to dispel darkness; the gloom of human existence inevitably consigned to death. For the world is plunged into darkness – John often repeats Jesus came so that people may have light. So that they can see not only where they came from but also where they are going. And they can have the certainty that it is worth going.
The bleakness of this darkness reveals itself most clearly, when on the day of Jesus’ death, from the sixth hour, “darkness covered the whole earth until the ninth hour”; here the One Living for Ever dies, hell appears to have won. But perhaps an even more poignant symbolic darkness appeared earlier, on the night of betrayal, when Judas left the Upper Room and John the evangelist notes: “and it was night”. The night was probably not just a period in the 24 hour day, but a terrible darkness which covered the heart of Judas. Jesus says to those who come to arrest Him (this is in Luke): “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness”.
In the liturgy, there are quite a few references to this symbolism. It is a part of the Liturgy of the Hours for Night Prayer. However, it also appears perhaps less noticeably in liturgies celebrated at night. Least of all during Midnight Mass; here it’s light that plays the most important role. But it’s a bit different for the Rorate Mass. Its beginning is in darkness by the light of lamps. And yes, here also light plays a symbolic role as Jesus illuminates the darkness of human existence. Yet at the same time darkness is clearly an emphasis of a space without hope and without God. This is more clearly seen during the liturgy of the Easter Vigil; beginning only after sunset, at dusk, it begins with the bringing of the light of the Paschal Candle into the darkness of the church. A beautiful symbol of who is the Light for those immersed in darkness. How different life is bathed in His light! Whether during or outside of prayer it is sometimes worth considering to what extent I am in the light, and what issues and goings-on I am trying to hide in the dark. To hide from God and from myself. It is worth asking now and again, how much the light of Christ already surrounds me, and how many layers of godless nights there are within me. Do I know where I am headed? And, well, how much am I a light for others, bringing the promise of peace, joy and hope, and how much am I a spreader of darkness, drawing others into the abyss of hopelessness, sadness or even evil?