I. BEGINNING

My sophomore year in college, I lived in a six person suite, two of us per room. One night, my roommate was pulling an all-nighter writing a paper. I was pulling an all-nighter keeping him company while he worked on it. Early the following morning, I opened the door to the suite-room and there standing there in the darkness was a menacing figure with arms outstretched. I screamed.

About This Sermon
Part 9 of the series “Lent and Easter with Game of Thrones
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 19-20, 2014—Easter Vigil
Matthew 28:1-10

And then immediately started to laugh as I recognized our suite-mate who had gotten up early to get ready for breakfast and heard me moving toward the door and decided to have a little fun and see if he could scare us. It worked.

It worked because in the wee hours of the morning you can be caught unawares. The old line that it’s always darkest before the dawn is true on a number of different levels.

Either for reasons of evolutionary biology or the power of symbols over our consciousness, the night is frequently a source of terror. As I said on Thursday night, even those of us who are night owls have to acknowledge that without lights for the streets and electricity to power our entertainment devices, the dark of night would be a lot less charming.

II. THE EMPTY TOMB

the-night-is-dark illustration of two women fleeing the empty tomb in the dark
Illustration by Rachel Ternes

The women who come to the tomb do so at dawn, just as the first hint of light is breaking forth. It is not surprising that even in these early hours of the morning the women react out of fear. Twice they are told—once by the angel, once by Jesus—not to be afraid.

The interesting thing about this story is that it has already dawned. It is no longer night, the light of the rising sun has already begun to shine. But it is clear that the women and the soldiers are still behaving as if it is night. It may be after dawn, but the night still very much holds sway.

III.  FOR THE NIGHT IS DARK

In the world of Game of Thrones, there are worshipers of the Red God R’hllor. Their rituals usually involve bonfires in the middle of the night—a bit bigger than the Paschal fire we lit earlier tonight. The faithful will cry out in a call and response: “Lord of Light defend us; for the night is dark and full of terrors.” The day is seen as the domain of R’hllor, Lord of Light, whereas the night is seen as the domain of the Other, the dark, evil god perpetually at war with the Lord of Light. The Lord of Light pierces the darkness with the fires that the faithful light in worship of him.

And this certainly plays into our own feelings about the darkness of the night. In the filming of the series, the shots are always of deep, dark nights or caves deep underground where the fires are lit and the faithful cry out: Lord of Light defend us! For the night is dark and full of terrors. The imagery of light in the dark night is powerful and evocative.

IV. THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

But there is another night that bears reflecting. In the late Sixteenth Century, the monk and mystic John of the Cross wrote a poem that would come to be titled Dark Night. In it is narrated the journey of the soul throughout the night until her final union with God. The poem describes the painful experience that people endure on their journey to union with God. Over the years, the poem has given rise to an expression in Christian faith: the “dark night of the soul.”

The term describes that painful experience of spiritual crisis, a loss of faith, a period of spiritual emptiness in the midst of one’s spiritual journey. And that journey has been experienced by a great many Christians. And even those (or perhaps especially those) we consider saints: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th Century Carmelite nun told her sisters: “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into,” referring to her deep doubts.1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Night_of_the_Soul Even a modern saint like Mother Teresa was not immune from the long dark night of the soul:

Now Father— since [19]49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me pain deep down in my heart—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—The place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God—and there is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there—… God does not want me— Sometimes—I just hear my own voice cry out—”My God” and nothing else comes—The torture and pain I can’t explain. 2Peter Rollins, Insurrection, 77 (citing Mother Teresa:Come Be My Light)

Mother Teresa wrote those words decades later, having endured a fifty-year long night of the soul.

When it comes to the dark night of the soul, the night is indeed dark and full of terrors. A crisis of faith can be a terrifying experience as if the rug has been pulled out from under you. You need not have been a person immersed in certainty to feel the sting of a crisis of faith. The loss of any grounding is a disorienting and terrifying experience. The Psalms are full of this expression of disorientation and loss. And the experience can be traumatizing.

For the night is dark and full of terrors.

In the dark night of the soul it is hard not to feel crushed by the brokenness of the world. It is hard not to feel every tragedy deeply, every hurt, every injustice, every sorrow. It is hard not to encounter these cries and to long for God to respond and to feel a soul-crushing emptiness. And that, as Mother Teresa says, can be full of “torture and pain.”

For the night is dark and full of terrors.

The dark night of the soul can make a person feel like their life is perpetually in shadow. And that shadow has a familiar shape to it, for it is the shadow of the cross.

V.   THE SHADOW OF THE CROSS

The shadow of the cross looms large. It is a shadow encompassing all the brokenness, all the hurt, all the sorrow, of the world of in our hearts. That shadow can at times feel all-encompassing.

But it has been said that the only reason the cross casts show great a shadow is because the light behind it is so very great. The light of Easter is the light that calls us even in the midst of the darkness.

In the depths of shadow, the light can be hard to see, but its effects are there. It is important to remember that those who spoke so eloquently of the night of the soul themselves testified to the light, even if they had trouble seeing it. Mother Teresa admitted that she entered into this long dark night of the soul in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. But she remained a witness to God’s love and grace until her dying day in 1997. Perhaps, the only thing to do in the long dark nights of faith is for us to become the light ourselves.

In the beginning, God created the light and then God created us in God’s image. We are called to be vessels of light in the dark.

The night is dark and full of terrors. But here we gather in the deepest part of the night to proclaim the coming of the light. Here in the depths of the night, we bear witness to the light of the Resurrection.

It can be difficult in the depths of the night, in the shadow of the cross to see the light behind it. But when we help to reflect the light ourselves, when we kindle the Paschal fires of our hearts, then in the midst of the night, dark and full of terrors, we follow our master’s command to be the light of the world.

For the night is dark and full of terrors, but the light is bright and full of hope.


The Text

Matthew 28:1–10 • After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”

With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”

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