recognise the sympathetic, life embracing aspects that we associate with the dark night.
Just to pick out some of those in the paragraph on your sheet of ‘dark texts’ by Ian
Matthew (see below 1) - stillness, rest, peace, silence, sleep, dreams, moonlight, stars,
refreshment, romance - and so on. But these positive aspects of darkness stand
alongside negative perceptions as well - solitude, fear, the unknown. And in St John’s
Gospel where the contrasts between darkness and light are a recurring theme
throughout the gospel, darkness is always represented negatively.
Darkness and evil go together in the evangelist’s understanding. By contrast in his first
epistle St John says God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. And Jesus describes
himself as the Light of the world :
I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of
Nothing could be clearer. God is light, and we follow in the footsteps of the God
revealed in Jesus, the light of the world. At our baptism - at least those of us baptised in
the last thirty years - we amy well have been given a candle in the course of that rite of
initiation, with the words ‘Shine as light in the world, to the glory of God the Father’ . And at the
Easter Vigil the darkness will be shattered by the lighting and raising high of the new
Paschal flame. And from that single flickering flame that shines on still in the darkness
our individual candles will be lit, to remind us of our baptismal commission that we are
to be lights in the world: and to remind us too that we are not alone. Whatever our
differences we are, in the light of Christ, members one of another, because we are one
But I am getting ahead of myself. The Office of Tenebrae comes before the Easter
Vigil. Before the new Paschal flame is raised, the light of the world will be all but
snuffed out. And tomorrow evening at Tenebrae we will liturgically recognise the reality
of our dark world : a dark world that was never darker than in this week, which with
hindsight we call Holy or Great Week. But what was holy or great about this week at the
time these events took place - not liturgically, but for real. As we heard in St Matthew’s
passion narrative on Sunday morning, as Jesus died there was darkness over all the land.
1 Our first step is to let night speak. It is worth letting the resonances which night time has for us to
surface. Some words may come to mind: darkness, solitude, fear, the unknown, immobility, stillness,
rest, peace, silence, sleep, dreams, moonlight, adventure, owls, stars, refreshment, friendship, romance,
perception. If these are the resonances then such is the journey of faith. The ‘night’ symbol; suggests
not urbanised gloom, but that which comes upon us and is mystery, beauty, terror and new birth.
In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth, there was darkness over
the deep (Genesis 1v 1) Then before time began, God’s Spirit hovered over the face of
the water and God said ‘Let there be light and there was light”. And the process of
creation was begun: a theological big-bang had taken place. Would that- could that -
same act of creativity be repeated. Would God’s Word - now stifled and silenced - would
God’s Word ever be heard again? Would God (could God) speak once more?
Another ‘Let there be’ and it was so : and behold God saw that it was very good?
Those first disciples and Jesus’s mother who witnessed these events were enveloped in
that darkness that was over all the land. No glimmer of light, despite the dawn appearing
on the horizon, no glimmer of light to give them hope as Jesus died. And how do
Christians today in ruined Aleppo, or Homs or Raqqa; how will Copts in Cairo, or
families scarred by violent events in Nice or Paris or Berlin - or indeed here in
Westminster - how will these people and their communities celebrate Easter? For them
and many others the world is dark indeed. And for many the world is dark, not only
because of external constraints that make life so unbearable, but also because of internal
demons of despair, despondency and depression. This week will resonate for them. And
our prayer must be for them as for ourselves that they will recognise that they are not
alone enduring darkness. They are not alone of course because their situation and ours
are not unique. But they are not alone in a more profound sense. This week’s passion
story tells of one who entered into our human condition, with all its problems and pains
and indeed passions, because he didn’t want us to be alone; didn’t want us to suffer
alone: and more than that he wanted to light a flame in the midst of darkness. Such a
flame may warm us, illuminate us and guide us, but more importantly the flame is not
impersonal or abstract, but is a hand outstretched to us in love, that shares bread with a
former enemy, that is simply there alongside us in whatever misfortune, grief or shame
life metes out to us and those around us. It is that sense of presence that gives hope,
celebrates joy, and transforms lives. As Michael Ramsey might have put it : Christian life is
not life apart from darkness but the willingness to go on with darkness all around.
We here in this country and in this city are reminded daily of the nearness of malevolent
forces, and though Londoners characteristically get on with their lives come what may
we are constantly urged to be alert and not to drop our guard. Today the threat is from
Islamic extremism, but not so long ago the extremists who wreaked havoc in different
parts of the United Kingdom were associated with Irish Republicanism. Seamus Heaney
the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate recalled in his Nobel lecture in 1995 one chilling
incident that took place in the time of the Troubles.
A minibus full of workers was being driven home on eJanuary evening in 1976 when it was held up by
an armed and masked men. The occupants of the van were ordered out at gun point to line up at the
side of the road. One of the masked men said ‘Any Catholics among you step out here’. The group of
men was entirely Protestant with one Catholic worker. The presumption was that this was aProtestant
para-military group about to carry out a tit-for-tat killing of any Catholics in the group. It was a
terrible moment for the one Catholic man caught between dread and witness. As the man made a move
to step forward he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a
signal that said : ‘No, don’t move; we’ll not betray you; nobody needs to know what party or faith you
All in vain. For the man did step out of line to receive his fate. But instead of finding a gun at his
temple, he was thrown backward as the gunmen opened fire at those remaining in the line : for the
gunmen on this occasion were not Protestant terrorists but members of the Provisional IRA.
Seamus Heaney commented on this true story.
The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which the terrified Catholic felt on the
roadside when another hand gripped his hand
The agreement that began to dismantle the centuries of hatred between two Irish
communities was signed, you will remember - and signed significantly and symbolically -
on Good Friday 1998. That agreement put into words and then into practice the squeeze
with which one man expressed solidarity with his fellow man. And on an epic scale that
is what we celebrate in the darkness of this week. we celebrate that a man came close to
us, to squeeze our hand in an act of solidarity, stood where we stand in the darkness, so
that we would know, beyond any doubt, that we never, ever, walk alone.
Seamus Heaney’s story puts into a contemporary context the picture that St Paul painted
for us at the beginning of this week when we hear part of hs epistle to the Philippians.
He spoke about Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not think his equality
with God was something to be hoarded, grasped or hung onto, but, on the contrary,
emptied himself, and taking human form, he descended further still to become a servant.
And obedient as servants are he became obedient even unto death - and not any human
death, but a hideous, brutal death reserved for the most violent of criminals.
That’s an extreme way of saying Jesus squeezed our hand on death row. But whichever
story you prefer (Seamus Heaney or St Paul) they amount to much the same thing. A
light is shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Indeed the story that Seamus Heaney told may reinforce the connection we need to
make between Jesus’s initiative in emptying himself of divinity and our involvement in
that process of self emptying. We see in Jesu’s life a man who exposed his (and our)
human vulnerability, and when he was at his most vulnerable and his human resources
had run out, he demonstrated what God is like. That is the most extraordinary
paradoxical thought that when Jesus is most vulnerably human he most eloquently and
emphatically displays his god-likeness.
But we affirm at every eucharist as we consume the body and blood of our God that we
are the Body of Christ. We do that for a reason : we have consumed a fragment of
bread in order to be made into a whole loaf. Bread smells good when it is freshly baked,
it looks good and will no doubt taste good. But we will never know how it tastes until
we break the bread and share it. We are the bread - the body - of Christ which has been
freshly baked, not to look good or smell good, but to taste good. And the proof of the
bread will be in its breaking. We learn here how to become a loaf; we learn here how to
squeeze hands; we learn here not simply to be acolytes who know how to light candles
for liturgical use, but how to be candles - or at least lights in the world.
The world is dark. It craves the light of Christ which we are privileged to bear. The
world is hungry for the bread of life : that is what, by God’s grace , mercy and
forgiveness, is what we are. As we enter more deeply into the darkness of this world, let
us know that Christ our light has not abandoned us to the darkness. He not only goes
ahead of us and beside us to guide our way. He has, extraordinary though it is, shared his
light with us that we may shine in the darkness, squeeze hands and feed a starving world.