A Week of Listening: Christena Cleveland on Advent and Darkness

First up in a set of three posts focused on listening to people of color speaking in the wake of last week’s grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri… A reflection on Advent by one of my newest colleagues at Bethel University.

In our family Advent devotional last night, we read a familiar verse from the Book of Isaiah:

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined. (Isa 9:2)

While it presented Jesus as the light that shines in the darkness, the devotional had our kids (turning five next week) start with the darkness. “What does it feel like to be in the dark?”, we asked them. “Scary,” said Lena, who can’t sleep without a night light. “Lonely,” added Isaiah quietly.

It brought to mind what I’d thought so much about this past January, when I taught a new course on World War II — a conflict that killed, on average, 27,000 people per day — in the middle of Epiphany, the Christian season of light. At that time, I found myself wondering what it meant to say “Arise, shine” (Isa 60:1) to people who lived in “thick darkness” (60:2). The same people who

lamented (a few verses earlier) that “…justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;  and for brightness, but we walk in gloom” (Isa 59:9). How easily the people of World War II could have said such things.

This November, the events in Ferguson reminded me how easily so many people in this country can still speak such words: “…we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness….” How many Americans feel loneliness and — in the presence of those meant to protect them — fear.

Photo of woman in Ferguson holding a "Stop Killing" poster on Nov. 25th
Photo from protest in Ferguson on Nov. 25th – Creative Commons (Joshua Sinn)

Which is no doubt why I was so struck by the first blog post that Christena Cleveland wrote after the Ferguson grand jury decision, also about the contrast between light and darkness:

Christena Cleveland…we do the Light a disservice when we underestimate the darkness. Jesus entered a world plagued not only by the darkness of individual pain and sin, but also by the darkness of systemic oppression. Jesus’ people, the Hebrews, were a subjugated people living as exiles in their own land; among other things, they were silenced, targets of police brutality, and exploitatively taxed. They were a people so beaten down by society that only a remnant – most notably Anna and Simeon  – continued to believe that the Messianic prophecies would one day come to pass. For many, the darkness of long-standing oppression had extinguished any hope for liberation.

It was into this “worst world” that the Light-in-which-We-See-Light was born, liberating the people from the terror of darkness. So it is in the midst of our worst world that we, too, can most clearly see the Light, for light shines more brightly against a backdrop of true darkness.

Woman holding her hands up in front of a police car at a Ferguson protest
Another of Sinn’s photos from the Ferguson protests last Tuesday – Creative Commons

Christena called on Christians living after Ferguson to “rescue Advent from its Western cultural captivity,” to not “gloss over the very real evil that makes the Messiah’s coming so very necessary, so very loving, and so very heroic.” To “plunge into the deep, dark waters of our worst world, knowing that when we re-surface for air we will encounter the hopeful, hovering Spirit of God.”

And if I hadn’t fully heard her message when I read it over our Thanksgiving break, it rang in my mind at worship this Sunday, as we sang the second verse of Presbyterian writer Jane Parker Huber’s Advent hymn, “O Promised One of Israel“:

In silent suffering some await
Your reign of justice here,
While others dulled by wealth and ease
Cannot explain their fear.
When prophets spoke and Mary sang
Of tables overturned,
Dare we admit, in trembling awe,
Our hearts within us burned?

<<Read the introduction to this series                    Read the next post in this series>>

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