The first time my father had a garden, my brother and I were quite young. Along the base of the fence out back, Dad planted green beans so the little climbers would have something to ascend. Corn he planted in the back half of the garden and, in the front, Dad sewed seeds for ground-hugging things: carrots, radishes, and lettuce mostly.
Robert and I weren’t asked to help Dad with the garden, at least not that I recall. But that didn’t stop the two of us from spending time there. Daily we trotted out back to take inventory of the garden’s progress. We watched the beans use their tendrils to climb the string Dad had tied to the fence. We tickled the tassels on the ears of corn as the stalks pushed skyward.
Not everything about the garden elicited delight, though. Robert and I were very worried about the carrots and the radishes. As far as we could tell, they were just rows of green squatting on the ground with little to show for themselves.
What Robert and I didn’t yet know is that not everything that grows does so out in the open. Stooped over the radishes, examining the mystery of these little green plants, one of us had the bright idea to carefully brush the dirt away from the base of one of them. A flash of red smiled back at us.
We tried one, then another. Red, red, red. Then we moved on to the carrots. Glints of orange burst out of the ground, bright as the early morning sun coming up over the nearby Warner mountains.
That day we went from skeptics to believers. Eyesight and daylight can be deceiving, we realized. Sometimes life has a life of its own in warm, dark earth.
This morning our lesson describes a joyous encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both are pregnant—an unlikely blessing for each woman. Mary because she is young and not yet married and Elizabeth because she has long been childless.
Here these two unlikely mothers are, reunited after a time, each discovering that the other is also with child. Jubilation spills out everywhere. And love, of course. So much love.
Out of the depth of affection these two share, out of the rich soil of this moment, Elizabeth is moved. She tips her head back and sings to her cousin. “You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb is also blessed!”
And when the last note of Elizabeth’s soaring song fades, it is Mary’s turn to sing. Mary throws out her arms, her voice full of confidence and wonder as she gives voice to the holy happening planted within her body.
At this very moment, Mary sings, is a gift of God rooted in mercy and justice and compassion, the work of God now becoming flesh, God with us, a God who will bring hope and help, who will topple tyrants so that all God’s people can live in peace.
Within the fertile field of Mary’s young body is the growing fullness of all God’s promises all these years, beginning long ago with Abraham and Sarah, stretching all the way to today, to this present moment.
Who would guess that along with babies nestled within them Elizabeth and Mary would also be carrying songs waiting for the right moment to be born? Songs ready to spring up from the soil of their souls, rising up out of the rich earth of their lives, songs every bit as urgent and holy as a seed that has taken hold in the ground and at just the right moment rises, pushing its way into daylight.
This Advent season, we celebrate the coming of the light that is Jesus. We mark the Sundays one by one, dedicating a new flame each week and relighting our candles from the previous weeks. We cozy ourselves around fireplaces, glad for the warmth and the glow and the memories we make there. We set our yards and rooflines ablaze with strings of lights. We look to the horizon, waiting for the coming of the son who will be our sun, the center of our respective universes.
But at this time of year what we don’t do, or do enough of, is welcome the darkness and consider how we are gifted by it. A darkness that is, right now, growing greater every day.
In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, the now-retired but always fabulous Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that most have a strong bias toward what she calls “solar spirituality.” That is, we have a marked preference for and allegiance to the light, the literal kind as well as the figurative.
Ever the gracious Southerner, BBT (as her fans call her) reminds us that when we do this, when we lean into the light to the exclusion of the dark, we wind up cheating ourselves. Why? Because the light shines upon us only half of the time. What about the other fifty percent of our lives, the part draped in darkness, BBT wonders. Is there nothing here of value? Nothing here to bless and teach and perhaps even transform us?
I don’t know about you but when I hear today’s reading and I picture Elizabeth and Mary together, it’s easy to imagine them embracing in full daylight. To see the sun glinting off their coal black hair and to catch the light of mutual love shining from their dark brown eyes.
I forget that this story, this exchange, is shot through with darkness. The best kind of darkness, the kind that is both warm and holy. Tucked safely inside each woman is a baby floating in a sea of black. Waiting in the darkness, too, are the songs these two women have in them to sing. Is it that I forget to look for the presence of darkness or that I choose to ignore it? It is that I’m so solar-powered, spiritually speaking, that I can’t imagine that there is a place in God’s story, our story, for lightlessness?
How unfortunate. Especially when I recall that our first home, our mothers’ bodies, bathed each of us in darkness. There’s just no getting around this truth; each of us takes shape surrounded by what one writer (Joan Halifax) calls “the fruitful darkness.”
All of creation, in fact, has its beginnings here. In the dark. The very first verse of the very first chapter of Genesis tells us “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”
Thinking about Mary’s pregnancy and Elizabeth’s too, thinking about our tradition’s origin story, I can’t help but wonder if our spiritual ancestors weren’t unconsciously drawing upon the human family’s bodily origins. Because in the very beginning, as I’ve been saying, we too were each formless. In the deep of our mother’s wombs, darkness covered our faces just as darkness first covered the face of the cosmos.
Raised with a preference for the sun, for light, most of us were also raised with a distrust or dread of the dark. We have come to associate good things with lightness; the heroes in our cowboy matinees all wore white hats. And the bad guys, well, their hats were black.
This year especially we are taking stock of the harm that has come from associating lighter skin with desirable, positive qualities and characteristics and darker skin with undesirable, negative ones.
In case I’ve not convinced you, I invite you to conduct a quick experiment. After worship, go online and search for synonyms for darkness, for black. You’ll find a long string of words, none of which are positive. All of which point to our culture’s dislike and mistrust of whatever is dark.
We miss so much when we push darkness away. When we imagine that good things, godly things, only happen when the sun is out. You and I began in darkness. God brought forth all life from what first was dark. So much that is good and lifegiving, so much that is saving and holy, takes shape in the dark recesses of the earth, a woman’s body, and even in the very heart of God.
Who are we to look only in the light for life, for growth, for what is praiseworthy?
Advent is as good a time as any to kneel down, scoot the damp, dark soil away, to discover that something good is growing, waiting for its time to push upward. Something beautiful right now may be readying itself to enter the light of day, perhaps to nourish but most certainly to gift us with treasures that only darkness can deliver.
Let us pray:
Holy One, forgive us those times when we have ignored the rich blessings that have come to us in the dark. Forgive us for forgetting that our first taste of being in bodies was when we swam in the unlit seas of our mother’s wombs.
Help us befriend darkness. Heighten our other senses so that even when there is no light and we cannot see, we can feel and hear and perhaps even smell our way forward. Bless us your peace in the dark, that we in turn might make peace with it.