I love our church when it’s full of light.
It’s one of the things I hear most about First Baptist Church Greensboro. The open sanctuary. The grand windows. The tall ceilings. “There’s so much light!” people say.
It’s also one of the things I miss most in this time where being church means not being in our building. I miss gathering in the airy sanctuary with you. I miss those times alone there, too, where walking through the building I notice through an open sanctuary door that the light is just so — that it’s “golden hour” as it’s called — when the angle and the tone are just so perfect as to beam in through the pains of the great windows.
And it doesn’t just come in through the windows, but through the life of the church — the music of our choir; hearing “Hey, Pastor Alan” from one of our kids racing down the hall on a Wednesday night; walking up to an older saint reaching his hand into the aisle to offer his two-fingered blessing during a baby dedication; hearing a senior sermon from one of our graduates; experiencing the tenderness of our love for one another or the compassionate care we offer to our the wider world; and, yes, looking out to see the full range of all possible pastel on an Easter Sunday in the sanctuary.
These are all kinds of light, aren’t they? A light that comes from somewhere beyond us, shining in on us just so, and reminding us of a hope in which you and I believe. And sometimes, every now and then, there are moments so golden where it doesn’t just beam into our sanctuary but into our very lives.
I love a church full of light. As I love a faith that is full of light, too. From the prophet Isaiah’s cries for light to shine, to the gospel of John’s promise that the true light shines amidst anything that would overcome it, to the proclamation in Genesis, “Let there be light.” Creation itself begins with light, and so much of our faith is beaming with it.
But not Easter. Easter begins with the dark — which might be where resurrection always has to start. “It was still dark,” John tells us, when Mary made her way to the tomb. It was early on the first day of the week. We know the time. We know how the air feels, damp and thick. We know how any sound is amplified, as to make us jump or turn our heads. We know the light in those hours — darkest before the dawn — some would say.
Mary knew this time, too. And not merely on that early morning. The haze around her that day matched her own spirit so many days, and certainly in those recent days. It was over. Pontius Pilate had signed the death order, and covered the tomb with stone, Rome exercising its authority over life and death once more as they always had. And if you hear that story enough, and experience all its limitation, you start to live your life by its cues.
As a reminder, the cross, where Mary was one of the last to leave him, was still perched outside of the city, visible against the early morning horizon to announce it’s pre-dawn message of “this is the way things are and will always be.”
It was still dark for Mary. Just look at her hands. She’s not carrying an Easter array of flowers, but spices to prepare a body, and with them all the weight of her despair. All of it rounding her shoulders and lowering her head as her feet find their steps slowly. Mary arrives not for a resurrection, but for a burial.
Easter begins in the dark. It does for so many of us. “It’s a great year for Easter,” Harry Emerson Fosdick once quipped. And we know the feeling — in our personal grief, in our experience of communal crisis, in all that rounds our shoulders and lowers our heads, slows our pace, makes us jump or turn with a fright. We know the feeling in all that limits our expectations as we make our way to the tomb this Easter.
How we’d love to be walking together, fists full of flowers like it’s the first day of a new creation. But some of us have burial spices in our hands.
How we’d love to be in a church full of light. But it’s still dark — darker than we wish it were.
So we need to remember that faith is full of darkness and light, both.
I remember a Christian History professor, Dr. Robin Jensen, once describing for us how her travels had taken her one summer to a medieval monastery in Isenheim – northern France. The monastery – long closed and conserved – had once been a hospital. In one great hall two sweeping portraits hang on opposite walls. On one side hangs a portrait of the crucifixion, while on the parallel wall hangs a rendering of resurrection — mirror images in that great hospital room of crucifixion and resurrection. And Dr. Jensen described standing there in that space, and how powerful it was to consider how the patients had been cared for in the space in between those two scenes.
It’s the space where we so often find ourselves — the space where we recall so vividly the pain we’ve experienced and witnessed, but where we have not yet seen all the evidence of resurrection nor all the reasons for hope. It’s still dark there, in that space — and it’s not metaphorical darkness, but the deep darkness of death and illness, of poverty and inequity, of the seeming inevitability of loss and despair and injustice. It’s the darkness of so many suffering under some Pontius Pilate or another. Broken people remain broken there. Dead people stay dead.
It’s not far from the space in another church, which you might have heard about — St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, where plans were being made this last week to set up medical tents in the sanctuary to treat up to 200 patients affected by our health crisis. Right in the church’s sanctuary, where thousands of chairs normally seat worshippers on an Easter Sunday morning.
And as much as I love a church that is full of light, I know that like faith, like life, church is full of darkness and light, both.
The author and preacher, Dr. Alyce McKenzie, learned this as a young girl, every week attending her church in a little river town in Pennsylvania, where on the back wall was a two pane stained glass window. And as a young girl she would stand in between the two panes, looking to the left at Jesus kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, in agony, the sun sometimes beaming in on a ruby red tear on his face, while on the other was Jesus ascending after resurrection, serene and radiant and bathed in light. She remembers standing on the pews looking from one side to another, back and forth, her life yet untouched by this range of human experience, but curious and earnest enough to ask her mother: “Why won’t the happy man help the sad man?” To which her mother replied, “Well, honey, they’re the same man.” (1)
And I love a messiah that is beaming with light. But the light all about him did not overpower all the darkness of his life. The glory of his resurrection did not overwhelm all the darkness that encircled his life. And neither does our faith remove the marks of the pain this life can bring to us.
As much as we want them beaming, our lives are full of darkness, too. And before we flee that darkness, we need to remember that God is working there. Oh, we love an Easter full of light, yes. But in the very moment of resurrection, it was still dark.
The poet Maggie Smith captures this in her stunning poem, “How Dark the Beginning,” listen to this excerpt:
All we ever talk of is light—
let there be light, there was light then,
good light—but what I consider
dawn is darker than all that.
We talk so much of light, please
let me speak on behalf
of the good dark. Let us
talk more of how dark
the beginning of a day is. (2)
Mary knew how dark — how dark the beginning of a day. It was too dark to see very far in front of her, and certainly too dark to begin to imagine a new world that stretched out before her. It was too dark to keep her from clutching the spices tightly in her hands. It was too dark for her to see much more than heartbreak and finality, and far too dark to live beyond the story of the world she’d always known.
And yet, the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps was at work in that darkness. Oh, we can see God so clearly in the beaming light. But God is a God of light and darkness, both.
Like in Genesis, where everything we know that is good in creation was made by God from dark.
Or in Exodus, when God promises to come to Moses in a dense or dark cloud
Abraham meets God in the darkness.
Jacob wrestles an angel in the darkness of the middle of the night.
And it was in the middle of the night a baby was born, to the parents reaching around in the dark for whatever bands of cloth they could find, yet already knowing they would never be able to wrap him tightly and safely away from this world.
So this is where any church following in the way of Jesus must be, and what any person who would claim the name Christ must be about — people who aren’t afraid of the dark.
“Go dark” says Wendell Berry. And not with a light. In his poem he writes:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings…
So Mary turns her head, hears a voice, and suddenly recognizes. “I have seen the Lord,” she says as she runs from there. And she didn’t see him in the light. She saw him in the dark.
What does the beloved Advent carol say? “When half spent was the night…” In the deepest darkness, when the light is as far from us as it can be, that’s when he came. That’s when he always comes.
The Christmas Eve Christ candle has been lit again this Easter day. Maybe it flickers tentatively, a single light carrying us along the twists of the garden path with Mary, clutching our burial supplies, feet striking the path with the slow rhythm of the grieved, no sun yet visible beyond the hill. I know how dark the way for many of us these days.
But there is One who is at work in the darkness beyond what we can see — somewhere in the mystery beyond our knowing, almost as though behind stone.
It’s the God who is about to call Mary’s name, turn her head, and invite all of us to turn with her into a brand new world — a new creation emerging from the early morning haze, and a story unlike any we’ve known where broken people are no longer broken, and even dead people are no longer dead. All of it so bright with promise as to send her running to tell, and all of us racing back to to see if it might beam on us, hoping to experience one moment of this golden hour of resurrection.
But before we rush to all that light, let us remember this Easter how dark the beginning.
- Alyce McKenzie, “He Ascended Into Heaven”
- Thanks to dear friend, Rev. Scott Dickison, for sharing this poem.