You may have noticed how much reference there is to darkness and light in the Gospels, particularly when we get to the final chapters.
In his account of the crucifixion Mark tells us that at midday (when the light should have been at its brightest) a darkness fell over the whole land, until three o-clock in the afternoon.
Sometimes you can see Easter posters that show the real opposite of this darkness – dazzling light, the sun at full blast, every daffodil trumpet bursting – all bright primary colours, all yellow and bright, all light, all light.
But the Gospels give us a rather different story of Easter. They tell us that the Easter Gospel was discovered not when the light was full blast, but when it was just beginning, or even ‘while it was still dark’. The resurrection stories come not at full sun, but in the almost still dark of the dawn.
Mark’s Gospel says that the women went to the tomb very early on the first day of the week, the sun still rising (in the Greek it seems to be ‘was rising’ not ‘had risen’). And John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Magdalen went to the tomb, early, on the first day of the week, ‘while it was still dark’. The resurrection is not made plain in the midday sun – in the place of mad dogs and Englishmen – but in just those moment when darkness is beginning to turn into light.
With the Gospels, I think we can sense that every word counts – and that there is meaning to be found in every syllable. So when they tell us it was early, that it was dawn, that it was that moment when the light is just beginning to come to transform the dark, we know that this is something to notice. It was so early that it wasn’t even yet light. Even the birds had not started singing. And it wasn’t only that it was early in the day, it was early in the week, the very first day. The week, like the day, was just dawning.
I find this account of the resurrection much more convincing, much more true to life, than a version which suggests that the light completely obliterates the dark, that sadness and suffering and death are somehow no more at all, as though we can now live in a world of bright colours and cheeriness. My experience is that life is not like that. God comes to me not as one who takes away the dark, but who begins to transform it into something I can bear and even live in fruitfully. I find God in those moments when the light of faith begins to edge the dark away.. but I have not yet found myself in any place where there is no darkness at all..
In Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, she describes the coming of the dawn, the dim moments of gathering light that come before daybreak.
‘The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually..’
Is that how God comes? Not like the harsh light of midday, but like the coming of the precious and almost intangible dawn. Does God come in such a way that you can’t always quite tell when God is present – like that game we have all played when we watch the morning and ask ourselves ‘Can I spot the actual moment that the day really begins?”
Christians are most appropriately named as children of the dawn. We belong to something that might be best described as ‘early’. We often speak of ‘the early church’, and we mean the church fathers and mothers of the first few centuries, but I think there is a sense in which we are all the ‘early’ church. We are those who have found God in those intimations of God’s divine and transforming love, right at the very moments when there is darkness..
We are part of the early church – a church which rests its faith in what some women found in the earliest hours of the first day of the. The risen Christ stands with us while it is still dark and calls us not to be afraid. And of course, we are afraid, like those first women were, too afraid to speak, but as light dawns, as love touches us with grace, fear is dispelled and overcome.
At the earliest Christian baptisms, the faithful would sing to the baptised, ‘Wake up sleeper, wake up sleeper, rise from the dead. Christ will shine upon you.’ It is time, it is time, to give yourself to the dawn, even while it is still dark. We are the early church. I think we should allow such a view of ourselves to become real. It may be dark, but we belong to the dawn and God is with us.
I wonder if, like me, you find it more convincing to belong to the dawn than to the midday Sun. I confess I am wary of forms of faith which are all smiles and all brightness, with little recognition of the realities of our lives. If the light is too bright it blinds us with fake rejoicing. A truer Easter faith, I think, is lived at that point where light begins to stir the darkness, but the darkness is still there. Perhaps it is like that phrase from the beginning of John’s Gospel where he learn that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness ‘comprehendeth it not’. The light cannot be extinguished, just as the dawn is irresistible, but the darkness is not denied either.
A few weeks ago I saw a wonderful VT of something that happened recently in Damascus, in Syria. The patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church visited the city, now largely in ruins after the recent bombings. He went with others to a bombed out church in the heart of the city, and right in the middle of the ruins, open to the sky, they set up a table with icons and with bread and wine and celebrated the litrugy of the church. I suspect that the bread and wine tasted of dust and the scene was grey. But the determination of faith was made more than vivid there – as the sacraments began to transform the darkness. This was such a powerful scene and I was deeply moved. My own life, I expect like yours, has its own share of ruins, places where life has come like a bomb to turn my own dreams to dust. I am certain that all of us know what it is to experience the dark night. But God comes like the light of dawn to bring the most moving and life-giving hope. I have known my faith at its most deep and true when it comes like the dawn right into the heart of night.
In the days before electric light and alarm clocks, people were simply woken by the dawn. The dawn always comes, transforming the deepest darkness of night and offering a new beginning. The disciples must have thought that the cause of Jesus of Nazareth was well and truly over after the crucifixion. He was the late Jesus of Nazareth, sealed in a stone tomb, gone forever into the dark. But then, early on the earliest day, the dawn came and he was alive, and the church faltered into life. We are part of the new movement begun that day, part of the early church, the children of God’s new dawn.
Last week I preached a sermon that had the theme of ‘joy’, the joy that is deeper than any sorrow, and was glad that one member of our congregation carries that name as her own. Today I have preached about the ‘dawn’, and am glad to be able to say that this word too is embodied as her name by a member of our congregation! I would not have thought to call a child Dawn, but now I see what a great name it is, how it speaks of the very delicate, but sure and true, hope of the Easter Gospel. Our faith is not about a harsh supremacy of light, with God coming to conquer like an imperial power, but our faith proclaims a Christ who comes in the tender and gentle light of dawn, who comes even into our deepest darkness and anxiety, and touches us with the promise of a new day and a new life. May it be so, for you and for all of us. Amen.