Last night was an insomnia night. After lying wakeful for a long while, I did what I virtually never do when I’m visited by sleeplessness: I got up and worked. Usually it’s working late that stirs my insomnia, but that wasn’t the case last night; I had turned my attention to other things during the evening hours. This time, when insomnia came to call, going to the drafting table in the wee hours seemed to make sense. I turned on the studio lamps and, squinting against their brightness, I began to sift through the piles of painted papers and set to work.
It eventually occurred to me that it seemed a fitting manner in which to while away the darkness on the cusp of the winter solstice. Tonight, in the wee hours, we in the northern hemisphere will be at our farthest remove from the sun. This night will be the longest of the year.
After this collage emerged in the sleepless darkness of this past night, I scribbled some words down on a glue-stained scrap of paper that lay on the drafting table. A night when the moon seems more enduring than the sun, I wrote. And then this, perhaps my tired brain’s idea of a title for the collage: egg over easy on a blue plate.
And perhaps that was fitting, too: that, in the midst of pondering the rhythms of light and shadow on the eve of the winter solstice, an egg should appear, sign of the life, the hope, the potential that stirs in the dark. And not only stirs in the dark, but, for a time, requires it. The egg, the seed, the root: everything that grows must have a season of darkness.
Within and beyond the Christian tradition, we have entrenched stereotypes about light and dark. These deeply held beliefs, which often seem to operate at a primal level, tend to hold that all that is good is light and bright and white, and that which is sinful and evil is dark. Though the stereotypes sometimes hold true, they can keep us—as stereotypes often do—from perceiving the ways that God sometimes works in the opposite direction.
I don’t want to be cavalier or romantic about darkness, despite wanting to recognize the gifts that it can carry. (My middle name is Leila, which comes from the Hebrew word for night; my parents had other reasons for the name, but I like to think it somehow influenced my tendency toward generally loving the nighttime hours.) There’s no getting around the fact that physical darkness can be terrifying, when it offers occasion for violence and fear. The darkness of moods, of emotions, of depression and internal chaos can be equally terrifying. At the same time, daylight can reveal its own fearsome things, and Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, writes that “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”
The solstice and the seasons of Advent and Christmas beckon us to ponder what we think about light and dark, what we find in them, how we experience their rhythms in our lives, and what gifts God has for us in both darkness and daylight.
In the book of Isaiah, God offers these words:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in the secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name. (Is. 45.3)
In seasons of shadows, God invites us to find the treasures that don’t depend solely on sight, whether literal or figurative. How do we know God in those times? How do we allow God to lead us to the riches that don’t require our knowing everything, doing everything, understanding everything, seeing everything?
And still. And still. Even in seasons when darkness is less fearsome—when the darkness comes not with terror but with the shadows of mystery and unknowing that are necessary for the soul’s growth—still, there is a deep and ancient longing for light, a yearning that we carry in our blood and in our bones. This is the season when we give that longing full play, when, in the days of deepest darkness, we hang lights and burn candles (and perhaps even turn on the studio lamps and set to work) and sing of the one who came to us as the light of the world.
From the deep root of Jesse, from the dark womb of Mary, Christ our dayspring comes. More enduring than both moon and sun.