When darkness seems to win

Veiled Cross on Palm Sunday
A sermon for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, March 29, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11 , Psalm 31:9-16, and Mark 14:1-15:47.

During Holy Week, there are some churches that offer a service called Tenebrae. “Tenebrae” comes from the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness.” Through the service there are readings–often the Lamentations of Jeremiah; and there is music—Antiphons, responsories, and psalms. But what especially marks the service has to do with its name. Through the prayers, candles are gradually extinguished. The light decreases until the space is total darkness. Then, by tradition, there’s a loud noise. The “strepitus,” or great noise, is a clang, a bash, a rumble that represents several things related to the crucifixion—the disciples running out of the Garden of Gethsemane, the tearing of the Temple curtain in Jerusalem, and the earthquake reported by Matthew. z

After noise, there in the dark, there is only silence.

But after a time, a small light appears—usually a single, flickering flame of a candle. Sometimes it’s the last candle of those extinguished earlier and instead of being put out, it has simple been hidden behind the altar. This single, small light represents the light of Christ—the light that is dimmed, that is hidden, that seems to completely disappear on Good Friday.

I think about the silence and darkness of Tenebrae when I read Mark’s Passion, St. Mark’s version of the Crucifixion that we just heard.

You may recall that each of the Gospels offers a particular point of view—of Jesus, and certainly of the Crucifixion. In Luke’s Gospel there’s a lot more attention given to the political and theological aspects. Matthew presents the crucifixion and resurrection as one event, leaving no doubt that Jesus is the King of Kings. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is a champion, totally in control, the “true light who shines in the darkness.” But in Mark’s Gospel, the version we heard today, it sounds like darkness has indeed overcome the light. Jesus is the victim.

The great preacher & commentator Fred Craddock points out that the verbs themselves show that all the action is “done to” Jesus. Jesus is betrayed and let down by his friends, the disciples. Jesus is arrested and taken away. His friends and disciples desert him. Jesus is taken to the high priest. He is interrogated, spit upon, and beaten. Jesus is bound and led away further. When Pilate tries to cut a deal with the religious leaders and release a prisoner, Jesus is passed over for Barabbas, the murderer. Jesus is handed over to others, and he is beaten again. He is made to carry his cross. He is brought to Golgotha. He is crucified. Darkness came over the whole land. Darkness seemed to overtake the whole world.

Mark’s version of the Crucifixion is not an easy one to hear, but it’s real. It’s true. And some of us know a bit of what that darkness is like.

There have been a lot of deaths in our extended church family over the past month. A dear friend and neighbor who was a young mother and wife. A dear husband and friend who had persevered through transplants and therapies. Another mother, wife, and friend. Church leaders. A brother…. We see death and tragedy in the news every day. And then there’s the unspeakable tragedy of the an airplane crashed seemingly because of one person’s despair and darkness.

Darkness is real. The shadows touch our lives with sickness and disease, with addiction and mental illness. We like to think we have something to do with our own health, that we can stay in the light, we can move toward the light, if we try hard enough. Often, we can, for a while—but when someone young contracts a strange disease or a virulent form of cancer, suddenly the light goes out and we there is darkness, uninvited and unexplained. Where is God when we can’t see him or feel him or in any way apprehend him?

Again, I go back to that liturgy of Tenebrae for a reminder. One essential part of Tenebrae is the reading we heard today from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, often sung as the antiphon, “Christus factus est.” The words are prayed even in the darkness. The words are prayed especially in the darkness because they emerge from the shadows:

Christ became obedient for us unto death,
even to the death, death on the cross.
Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name
which is above all names.

There is something in that mystery, something in that movement of humility, self-offering, of suffering-with, that gives pierces the darkness, as though a knife were put through a black shroud, flooding the place with light. God doesn’t let the light go out even though we might not see it, just like at night the sun is still shining—it’s just on the other side of the world.

One of my favorite versions of the Tenebrae service follows the normal pattern of readings, music, and decreasing light. The candles are extinguished one by one. And as the lights go out, there’s a sadness that falls over the space. It is unspecific and large. It seems to include all of our pain, all of our heartache, all of our questioning. But then, as one become uncomfortable in this deep darkness, and one tries to adjust one’s eyes, there’s the faintest hint of light. One wonders if it’s in the imagination. But then it seems to be moving and approaching from behind. Gradually, slowly, silently… from way in the very back of the church, a little child comes, carrying a single candle. As the child moves through the space shadows dance all over the place, no longer threatening but animated with hope, with joy, with expectation.

The light shines in the darkness! It never went out. It just changed. It just seemed to go away. But here it is, faint but full; small but strong; vulnerable, yet eternal.

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to seek the light. We are invited to slow down, to set aside the calendar, and our “to do” list. For a few days, we might even put on hold our endless list of “shoulds.” Whether we spend time in this church, another church, or somewhere else, Holy Week invites us to notice the dark places in our lives, the shades and shadows and allow God to be there with us.

Even if we can’t feel the warmth of the light, even if we can’t get a glimpse of it yet, the faith of the Church assures us that “What has come into being in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-5)

Whether we heard the words at Christmas or at Easter, their truth shows us the way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, has not, and will not overcome it.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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