In Wakeful, Dark Nights of the Soul, Suffering Reveals the Nearness of God

In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning’s rather unsettling Gospel passage is excerpted from what is known as the Little Apocalypse – named as such, because, while the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel certainly jolts us into wakefulness, we’re not swept up in the fight-freeze-or-flight adrenaline rush that The Revelation to John or the Book of Daniel often inspire. Those two Apocalypses are like the avalanche of Richard Wagner’s gargantuan Ring Cycle inundating our senses, whereas the Little Apocalypse in the Gospel is more like a late piano sonata of Franz Schubert. In these devastating and terrifying days of pandemic when the incessant pain of loss leaves our hearts frayed and tender, I’m drawn more to the intense subtlety of Schubert and shy away from the overpowering grandeur of Wagner. Pianist András Schiff says, “It is in the quiet and quietest moments when Schubert – like nobody else – touches our hearts.”[1] Just as the touching, quiet confidence of Schubert lifts, strengthens, and stirs up our spirits, the Little Apocalypse in today’s Gospel lesson has just the right balance of power, poetry, and tenderness to coax us into the wakeful hopefulness of expectation on this First Sunday of Advent. As we long for these interminable dark nights of the soul to end, and for a new day, new joys, and new possibilities to dawn,[2] Jesus encourages us to keep alert, to watch and wait for the unexpected gift that suffering reveals to us.

The etymology of the word “apocalypse” teaches us that catastrophes and tragedies “reveal” or “uncover” truths we would have never realized if we hadn’t experienced the suffering that grief and loss create. The year 2020, by far one of the most catastrophic and tragic in living memory, has uncovered and awakened us to truths only tragedy can reveal. It is important to note that before the culmination of the Little Apocalypse we heard in the Gospel, Jesus describes the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-8), the persecution of early Christians (Mark 13:9-13), and the Desolating Sacrilege (Mark 13:14-27). The catastrophic suffering of these tragic events necessarily precedes The Lesson of the Fig Tree. Jesus says, as soon as the fig tree’s branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things – the destruction, persecution, and desolation described earlier – you know that God is near, at the very gates (Mark 13:28-29). Suffering through our own dark nights of the soul reveals and uncovers the nearness of God if we are alert and watching for God to show up unexpectedly. Jesus says that it is in the darkness of “the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” when God’s presence will suddenly arrive.

As our days grow shorter and darker in this Season of Advent, we ritually light a candle each week to mark our watchful anticipation of the Light of Christ that is coming into the world – outward and visible signs and reminders of God’s Light within us. As Irish poet, priest, and philosopher John O’Donohue writes,

A lot of the experiences we have in the world are torn, broken, hard experiences, and in broken, difficult, lonesome experiences you earn a quality of light that is very precious… When you come through a phase of pain or isolation or suffering, the light that is given to you at the end of that is a very precious light, and really when you go into something similar again, it is the only kind of light that can mind you. It is the lantern that will bring you through that pain… you should allow that light to come round you to awaken the presence that is in you, to calm you, to bring you contentment, and as well to bring you courage.[3]

As we continue to journey together through long nights of suffering ahead, I have witnessed this earned quality of light in many of you who are lighting the path and bringing our community of faith through this year’s struggles, pain, and losses. We must continue to be witnesses to that presence of the Light of Christ that suffering awakens, reveals, and uncovers in each of us, so that we can be sources of courage, compassion, forgiveness, and trust for one another and our neighbors. In his book, Religion as Creative Insecurity, philosopher Peter Bertocci writes, “When I see a human being who gives of [their] energy and thought for the sake of another’s creative growth, when I see a love through which respect for the freedom of other persons grows, I nearly reach the climax of admiration, reverence, and adoration.”[4] Bertocci goes on to say that God created us precisely for this “fellowship of creative love” or “the fellowship of the compassionate.” Of those actively engaged in this genuine Christian fellowship, Bertocci writes,

theirs is a kind of serenity which never hides from what still needs to be done, and never flees from the discouraging or the painful. They have a kind of strength of mind, a maturity of spirit, which makes them forever grateful for every good, and forever yearning for the better.[5]

As our community of faith actively continues to be and to become this ever ancient and ever new fellowship of compassionate and creative love in the world, we must hold on to what the Apostle Paul’s Epistle preaches this morning. The grace of God has been given to each of us in Christ who strengthens us to the end, for God is faithful and calls each of us into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:3-9).

Franz Schubert once wrote, “My compositions spring from my sorrows. Those that give the world the greatest delight were born of my deepest griefs.”[6] As the nights grow darker and longer this Advent, remember that sorrow and grief can actually reveal and uncover, like the Little Apocalypse, God’s very nearness to us. In the darkest of hours, the Light of Christ’s love awakens in us so that we can gracfully continue to serve in creative and compassionate fellowship together. And as challenging as it is to celebrate during these apocalyptic days, we must celebrate with thanksgiving the sacred gift and sacrament that every blessed-and-broken human life really is in this world. Because, in the words of Mary Oliver,

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.[7]

Amen.

[1] https://www.ecmrecords.com/shop/143038752064

[2] https://liturgy.co.nz/lord-it-is-night

[3] John O’Donohue and John Quinn, Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 151-52.

[4] Peter A. Bertocci, Religion as Creative Insecurity (New York, NY: Association Press, 1958), 124.
[5] Bertocci, 126.

[6] https://youtu.be/d2ixo1eJmC0

[7] Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow” in Thirst (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006), 52.

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