I certainly did not set out to do this, but through pure coincidence in the past week or so, I’ve been reading a lot about caves. The most recent New Yorker had an article about exploration of very deep caves and in her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor works up the courage to enter into a wild cave and spends some time sitting in the deep, deep darkness that one experiences inside the earth. Last summer, when Justin and I visited Wind Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at one point in the tour, the guide turned out the light and we experienced a darkness that I have never experienced anywhere else. It was so dark that we could not see our hands when we put them on our noses. No metaphorical darkness there. It was pitch black.
Though John doesn’t include this detail in his Passion Narrative, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do. From noon until three, darkness covered the whole land. Darkness covered the whole land. Not metaphorical darkness, although that certainly filled the hearts of those who stood by to watch Jesus die, but real darkness, covering the land while the Savior hung on the cross to die.
There is darkness about this day. It is solemn and somber. It seems funny to me when Good Friday dawns bright and sunny (as it has on this 90+ degree Cairo day). It should be rainy and dreary and dark. This is the day when we remember that our Lord died. Really truly died. Breathed his last. Bowed his head and gave up his spirit. It is a dark day, and though we know that the story is not yet finished, still, our hearts are heavy on this day.
There is darkness covering the land today, on this strange paradoxical day we call Good. Darkness of violence and uncertainty, darkness of illness and unemployment. Darkness of despair and hopelessness. Darkness that comes along with waiting for word from family and friends stuck in the middle of fighting in South Sudan. Darkness that comes with not knowing whether your three missing nephews are alive or dead, as is the case of one of our South Sudanese friends. And though the sun shines this morning, there is darkness in our hearts. The kind that comes from fear and dread and grief. The kind that comes with facing our own mortality, even as we contemplate the death of our Lord. Sometimes it feels as though this darkness cannot, and will not, go away. Cannot and will not give way to light. There is darkness, if not literally, certainly metaphorically, in our hearts and in our world.
Jesus entered the darkness. He entered the darkness of this world and hung on the cross when the sun refused to shine that afternoon so long ago. In Christ, God entered the darkness of death. And though we might be afraid, though we might despair, we can find some solace in the fact that, in Christ, on this day, God entered the darkness. God has been there. God knows. As Andrew Root writes,
It is when we are up against death, when we find ourselves in despair, that the God of cross is near to us. It is through suffering and despair that God is made known to us, for God is found on the cross. (1)
This is a day that is full of paradox, when God-with-us, the one in whom we have life, dies. It is full of questions and it should be. It isn’t a day that we understand readily or easily. And yet, it is truth, deeper than we might be able to comprehend. In the darkness of the day, God finds us, for it is on this day that God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one who “stands over and against nothingness,” who speaks “life and possibility out of darkness,” takes darkness within Godself and allows it to come between Father and Son, becoming part of God’s story, and, consequently, our story as God’s people, forever. (2)
We have a God who dies. This is a central tenant of our faith. One that many find strange and weird and heretical. But, as Christians, we believe that God takes on human form, really truly human form, and God dies. And though we know that this story is not yet over, for today, we sit in the darkness, in the shadow of the cross, bearing witness to the darkness and despair that are so very real in our lives and in this world. And God promises to meet us there.
At the end of the day, after Jesus had declared, “it is finished,” and bowed his head and breathed his last, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus, who had first come by night, take Jesus’ body and laid it in a fresh tomb. It’s quite likely that that tomb was a cave. We learn from the other Gospels that it was sealed with a stone. Jesus’ dead body was laid in a dark tomb, one that matched the darkness that filled the hearts of his disciples and those brave followers who had stood by to watch him die.
As we ponder, as we wait and watch and pray, consider this, written by Barbara Brown Taylor:
Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after. Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark. As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. (3)
Though we sit in the shadow of the cross, in the darkness of this day, we live in the paradox, this in between place, where we grieve, and yet we know that new life can and will and does start right here, in the darkness of this day.
1 Root, The Promise of Despair, p. 72
2 Root, p. 115 & 87
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Kindle location 1436