This week marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation by the Red Army
of the last 16,000 prisoners of Auschwitz. Around the world Auschwitz-Birkenau
have become symbols of terror and genocide, surely the darkest, the
deepest, the worst experience the 20th century records, of people living
in the land of death. Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who
has written prolifically of his personal experience in concentration
camps during the holocaust, described that land of death in terms more
graphic than we can bear, of the experience of Jews in the Nazi camps,
as "kingdoms of night", giving a desperate tone to the image
of night and of darkness.
The experience of darkness can be a terrible thing, terrible if its
cause by the prevailing, overpowering political climate; terrible if
its imposed by the pains of disunity in any community or institution;
terrible if it's what clouds individual thinking and emotion and robs
us of any hope. These are, all of them together and each of them separately
the grim possibilities threatened by inference in all of today's readings.
They focus separately and together on "people who walk in darkness",
to use Isaiah's phrase. It is Isaiah who has started us considering
those grim possibilities of being a people who walk in darkness. He's
referring to the people living in Galilee, a dark land, a land of shadows.
Galilee was a district at the northern tip of the kingdom of Israel.
It was border country, where Jews shared the land with foreigners of
another speech and culture. The Galileans were examples of the terror
and darkness to which Isaiah referred. They were troubles not only by
a foreign presence, but by a foreign army which had invaded their border
and brought terror to them.
Centuries later when Herod arrested John the Baptist, and Jesus could
see a police net closing on the prophetic movement which was inspiring
the common people, Jesus quietly moved to Galilee where most of his
ministry was to take place. Matthew seized on Isaiah's description and
speaks of the people of Jesus' time who lived in darkness, who lived
in the land of death.
Well, the experience of being a captive in the darkness of the land
of death is not confined to those who live in the reign of political
terror. Those who suffer emotional depression in any age are aware of
the kingdom of night, this land of shadows. The most extreme example,
I suppose, are those who have tried to kill themselves because the experience
of darkness, living in what they perceive to be a hopeless world, seemingly
without any answers to life's perplexing questions is just too much!
A century ago, the French painter Paul Gauguin possessed by this darkness
decided to take his own life. Before his attempt at suicide, he completed
in a frenzied fever of work what was to have been his last testamentary
painting. When he completed it, instead of signing his name to it, he
wrote at the bottom of the bottom of the canvas three questions: "Where
have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" To these he
had no answers.
Jungian psychology suggests that a dimension of our personality is the
shadow side; the dark self which, finding no answers to life's questions,
can cause a lapse into demonic desires and impulses. Well what of this
darkness? Is it the experience of only the politically oppressed, or
the clinically depressed? While there clearly are far greater depths
of darkness for some than for others, I believe it still is a human
experience, common to us all, either ongoing or episodic. It can be
ruthless aggressiveness, a hatred, a malice, an uncontrolled jealousy,
or an unrelenting distrust of people. Or it could be despair, fear of
the future, or guilt for the past, These are pretty dark things, and
they thrive not in sick people, but in perfectly normal, nice, friendly,
likeable people like me, like you.
But Isaiah doesn't leave us in the darkness. "The people who walked
in darkness", he said in his vision, "have seen a great light".
It's a powerful image of unending peace, of lasting tranquility, occasioned
by a new reign of peace in Israel. Its an image conveyed by those ancient
throne names solemnly bestowed on the pharaohs of Egypt upon accession,
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
They are celebrated in the unforgettable line sung repeatedly in Handel's
Messiah, "And the government shall be upon his shoulder."
It's Isaiah's frankly militaristic image which Matthew skillfully applies
to his vision of Jesus, the light of the world, the light which shines
in the darkness. Jesus intentionally went to Galilee, to the land of
darkness. He knew what he was doing. He chose to do what he did. That's
the nature of the incarnation. Jesus inhabits the darkness. The darkness
remains, but Jesus is there, sharing the darkness with those who inhabit
it, but illumining it, bringing the light of hope to it so that we can
accept it and offer it for transformation. Darkness can be transformed
into light, Evil thoughts can be transformed into compassionate thoughts.
Sexual promiscuity can become faithful and caring love toward another.
Deception and theft can become respect and honesty. But only as these
shadow qualities, these works of darkness are claimed and owned and
offered for redemption.
That's the becoming what by baptism we already are. A whole person,
redeemed by Christ. It's a life long journey, and for it we need the
grace of God