Wednesday, December 24, 2014

All the light we cannot see

(title borrowed from Anthony Doerr’s novel)

Luke 2: 1-16; Isaiah 9: 2-7
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
Christmas Eve 2014



            Most nights, before I go to bed, I read a few pages from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Did you know that for the past 20 years or so, two-thirds of the United States cannot see the Milky Way in the night sky?  In our quest for the light, the light that shines in the darkness, that darkness has not overcome, we have allowed the light to overcome the darkness.  On the very best of nights, in say Montana or Colorado, we can see approximately 2,500 stars, a mere fraction of the 100-400 billion stars in our galaxy alone.  Most folks in the suburbs are lucky if they can see 250 stars on a moonless night.

            We have divided ourselves against the night, and enshrined the idea that light is good and dark is bad.  We install security lights.  Some stores and gas stations are open 24/7 with well-lit parking lots.  We’ve upset our circadian rhythms by lighting up the night.  Much of our work and entertainment is beholden to a screen of some sort, the light of which signals to our brains that it’s time to be awake no matter what time it is.

            And yet we need the dark of the night to restore us.  Before there was artificial light, we ceased our work and most other activity at sunset, went to bed with nightfall, and rose with the sun.  When there was more darkness, our relationship with the earth was more humble.  Somehow there was more time; technology’s promise now rings hollow.  

A map of artificial night sky brightness due to light pollution in North America. ©2001 Cinzano, P., Flachi, F., Elvidge, C.D.

            University of Oxford professor John Carey doesn’t think it’s just coincidence that the Enlightenment occurred around the same time as the appearance of gas lamps or that the invention of the electric light bulb came about a few years before Nietzsche announced that God is no more, by our own hand.  As we overtook the night, our sense of self as a species grew beyond us.  And when we had shrunk the night sky, when our collective sense of awe began to wane, it was then that we harnessed the power of the sun, like Apollo himself, and the nuclear age dawned, as well as the possibility of our utter destruction.

Long ago, yesterday
we sat and listened
to the sound of our own hearts
beating in the gloom
of the Hour of the Wolf.

It was once impossible
to remake the world in our image
as the eventide humbled us
into inky submission
at the end of day.

Electric light has transformed us
into zealous gods
no longer constrained by the darkness
that once kept our hubris at bay.

But we no longer hear our beating heart.

Andrew C. Peterson © 2014

            Which is why we still need the stories of Christmas, of Matthew’s star and Luke’s shepherds keeping watch by night; the beating heart of God enfleshed in a baby; his brave mother and faithful father who looked into the night sky and could see their place in it.  Sometimes, in order to see God, we need to turn off the lights.

            Astronomer Tyler Nordgren says that of course the stars are still out there.  They’re just waiting for us to pay attention again.  

O holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees; O hear the angels voices.
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.
O night divine, O night, O night divine.



Seize the night!  Make friends with the dark.  Let moonlight into your bedroom.  Take night hikes.  Make a wish on the evening star.  Close your eyes and sit inside yourself for a while.  Make peace with yourself.  From the dark of the womb we all come into this world.  Blessed be this night, this holy night, when Christ was born.  Amen. 

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