Monday, April 18, 2011

Luminous Darkness and Palm Sunday

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - Year A (RCL) - April 16/17, 2011
Matthew 21:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:36 - 27:66
Preacher: The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

            From noon on, darkness came over the whole land…”  Matthew 27:45
            On Wednesday evenings this Lent, I offered a study of the English Mystics, a fascinating group of men and women who in the 14th century attempted to live lives of strict prayer and discipline to deepen their relationship with God in Christ.  It wasn’t an easy period in which to do this.  The 14th century was the time of the Hundred Year War between France and England; of the Peasant Revolt and of the “Black Death” – the plague which decimated half the population of Europe.  Can you imagine such a thing?
            This past Wednesday, we focused on Walter Hilton who was an Augustinian Canon of the 14th century.[1]  One source I used described Walter Hilton as “perhaps the most theologically adept of the medieval English mystics” and further described him as a “wise and gentle spiritual guide.”[2]  His most well-known and admired work is titled The Scale of Perfection.  It offers clear guidance to an anchoress, and by extension to anyone who reads it, about how the image of God might be reformed in each us through disciplines of prayer, scripture reading and contemplation[3] and through the sacraments of “Holy Church.”.
            In preparing for the Hilton session this past Wednesday, I was reading the volume dedicated to him from the Classics of Western Spirituality Series.  This is an outstanding series put out by the Paulist Press which has recovered and reclaimed two thousand years of the Christian spiritual tradition and makes them available to all - clergy and lay person alike - in ways that are very readable and accessible.  What a treasury this is!
            In their Introduction to the Hilton volume, scholars John Clark and Rosemary Dorward, who prepared the volume, touched upon a notion that appears with some consistency in the English mystical tradition.  It is the notion of luminous darkness.”  As Clark and Dorward explain, “the journey from worldly love to love of God is compared to the passage of one day, through the intervening night, to the following day.”[4]   
            Luminous darkness - what a tantalizing idea; passing from the light of one day, through the darkness of night to the lightness of a new day...Of course, this is something each of us experiences every 24 hours; something we take for granted as the ordinary passage of time.  Generally, we don’t give much thought to it.
            Still, at other times, times when we find ourselves in the depths of grief and despair, we don’t take this passage of time for granted at all....In these times, the darkness is all pervasive and often the literal night is something we dread - when we can’t sleep and we are overwhelmed with grief or loneliness, or self-loathing or fear - and we wonder if day will ever come....We wonder if the sun will ever shine again for us....Literal daylight and literal nighttime become metaphors for us and figures of our souls....
            Our combined observance on this day - Palm Sunday and Sunday of the Passion - and indeed, all the things we will engage in this upcoming week though our prayers and liturgies, this week we call “Holy,” seem to me to be operating at this deeper and more spiritual and metaphorical level of “luminous darkness.”  Understanding them in this way allows the possibility that they will have great meaning for us, and even transformative power, if we will allow them to....It is the movement, the spiritual movement, from light through darkness to light again. 
            Certainly this movement from light to darkness is a part of our observance today....We began with excitement and anticipation - palms being blessed, “Hosannas” being sung - telling a story of Christ’s triumphal entry in to Jerusalem.....Everything appears light, filled with hope and joyful expectation...
            But the light soon turned to darkness as we heard the Passion account; heard of Christ’s betrayal and arrest, of his being abandoned by those he loved; heard of his scourging, his crucifixion; heard his cry of “God-forsakenness” Eli, eli lema sabbacthani” (Matthew 27:46).  It was the cry of a soul in the dark night....It is a cry, you have, perhaps cried yourself. 
            Here, it is important to know something about luminous darkness in the mystical tradition....There is, in the writings of some, an understanding that God’s love is so bright, so excessively bright, that it appears to the human soul as darkness....”  Think of looking directly at the sun at midday....You can’t...If you do, you are blinded.  The light is too bright....It is excessive....If you look at it, you will see darkness....luminous darkness....darkness due to excessive light.
            Look at Christ Jesus crucified....Look at the one who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form...humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross...(Philippians 2:6 - 8).
            The cross....darkness, luminous darkness - the luminous darkness of life laid down for of you, love of me....The light is excessive....It is so bright, it is blinding....God’s luminous darkness, whereby in Christ, God endures the cross out of the depths of love to call us, each of us,  you and me, indeed all human beings, into his love....It is blinding this love....It will take our eyes, our spiritual eyes, about a week to adjust....We have to spend time in this darkness, the way we need to spend time for a while in a room after lights are shut to see our way forward; to see the shadows in that room....
            Here it takes precisely one week to see love in the shadows - in the shadows of Christ turning tables over in a Temple, turning our tables over too.....To see love in the shadows of his Last Supper, when he takes the simple substances of bread and wine and gives them new meaning, deeper meaning, meaning filled with himself, meaning filled with love, so that you and I can take them, eat and drink them, and strive to be what he was and is, love, living love sent forth into the world. 
            It will take time in the shadows of next Friday to see love in the darkness of his passion.   Do you want to know why we call that Friday “Good”?  Precisely because of “luminous darkness.”    It is a “wondrous cross on which the king of glory died.”  As the old hymn says so well, “love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”[5]
              Many of the mystics, English, Spanish, German, spent a great deal of time reflecting on the virtues, and especially the virtues of humility and charity - charity as in generous love, not merely giving alms to someone:  the kind of generous love that should fill us with the effusive, overflowing, love of Christ so that we are generous and gracious in all ways to all people.  Humility and charity were key virtues for them because they were key virtues of Christ.  
            Again, as it says in Philippians, “he humbled himself and took the form of a slave.”...He humbled himself...God emptied himself and became one of us, became human.....Why?  So that we could become like him, humble, having a true and forthright awareness of ourselves - the fair and the foul; and also like him, divine, filled with generous love and light; love and light that are sacrificial wherein we regard all others with dignity and respect, the dignity and respect every human being merits as those made in the image and likeness of God, as we ourselves are made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:26 – 27).
            I can’t help feeling we need this Holy Week experience to call us back to ourselves, to call us back to what we are supposed to be:  imitators of Christ in humility and love, in self-giving, generous, love....
            Holy Week invites us, calls us back to being reformed in the divine image in which God made us....For Hilton, we needed to “re-formed” into the image of God, because he understood that was how God made us at the outset of Creation.   For Hilton, and others, we had lost this in “the Fall” (See Genesis 3).  In Christ, God created the opportunity for us to be “re-formed.”   We need this re-formation.
            There is so much anger and shrillness, greed and self-concern in our culture today it seems as if some will not be satisfied until they have driven us to civil war.  It’s appalling. Where is the humility?   Where is the charity?  Where is the love?  This is darkness without light.  As Christians we must resist this.  Holy Week is our re-engagement with Christ and his passion and our resistance movement against the dominant world and its ways….
            So, come, journey into the darkness that is luminous, walk the way of the Cross this week, walk each step deliberately, prayerfully....It is the movement from day through night to day again...Let God’s love in Christ, let his excessive light and love overflow in you and blind you until God leads us all to the new light; the resurrection light of Easter.

[1]   The Augustinians are a rule of mendicant friars who were formed in the 13th century and whose rule is based in the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 438)  See  Wikipedia “Augustinians” at
[2]   Miller, Gordon L.  The Way of the English Mystics:  An Anthology and Guide for Pilgrims  Kent, England, Burns and Oates, 1996, p. 43
[3]  Hilton’s scheme of three parts of the Contemplative life is worth noting.   See Hilton, Walter The Scale of Perfection – The Classics of Western Spirituality New York – Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 1991, pp. 79 ff.
[4]   The Scale of Perfection “Introduction”  p. 45
[5]   The Hymnal 1982 - #474 – Isaac Watts (New York:  The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).

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