When I was a child I was hesitant to go upstairs or down to the basement if the lights weren’t on. I don’t know that I was afraid of the dark, I think it was more a fear of what might come out of the dark. Of course my child’s imagination thought of monsters and ghosts or of ninjas that might sneak in through my bedroom window. The shadows cast by moonlight and my curtains served only to exaggerate the creatures stirring in my imagination.
Fear of the dark is not an uncommon phobia in humans, especially in children. If we examine our hymns and liturgies closely, we’ll come to see that our tradition, along with most all traditions within Christianity, use darkness as an image and metaphor for evil or those forces that are set against God. In a like manner we use light as an image and metaphor for good and for the grace and power of God. These images of light and dark are found throughout the scriptures. Take for instance when John describes light as being in Jesus, the Word of God incarnate.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” -John 1:4-5
Here we see light associated with the Word of God and darkness is set against it as an enemy or obstacle trying to overcome the light. This imagery of light and dark has transferred to our use of color in the church. We associate white with rebirth and baptism and we associate black with death (the very thing Christ overcomes in his resurrection). This treatment of light or white vs dark or black has been around for all of church history in some form or another. In the context of American history it has unfortunately been used to support racism, specifically against people of African descent. Because of this association it is important that we are careful in how we use images of light and dark in referencing God, sin, goodness, and evil. There is, however, an aid for us in this task, found in scripture. The Bible is not uniform in its treatment of darkness as bad. In Psalm 139 the Psalmist says of God, “even darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Furthermore God is described as living in thick darkness by King Solomon in 1 Kings 8:12. Psalm 97:2 similarly describes God as surrounded by clouds and darkness. If we are to take these and other passages of scripture seriously we must recognize that darkness is not uniformly used in scripture as a description of evil or death. The use of darkness is not so black and white as we may have thought. Thus we should be careful how we use the language of light and dark, least we find ourselves reinforcing racist patterns that go back centuries. We should also be careful how we think of darkness because Solomon and others in the Bible remind us of God’s presence, even dwelling, in darkness. So as the days grow shorter and the dark of night lengthens, remember darkness need not be a bad thing or an image of evil, for God is in the dark as much the light. Thanks be to God that we don’t need to be afraid of the dark or of who we might find there.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?- Psalm 139:7