In Western Christian culture, we tend to oppose light with darkness and assume that since light is good, darkness must be bad. But it is not, necessarily. The darkness of the womb and of the soil, for instance, are places of incubation, gestation and growth. Seasons of darkness in our lives are often good and necessary.
Lent is such a season. It begins on Ash Wednesday, when our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross in ashes and we hear these words spoken to us: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” This sobering statement reminds us that we are human (the word itself comes from humus, earth, dirt), that we come from the earth and will return to it. We seldom stop long enough to even consider this fact of our existence, let alone dwell with it for a while. The season of Lent invites us to reckon with this reality, to live with death daily before our eyes, as St. Benedict counseled. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “Die before you die.”
Death is a mystery, veiled and dark. We are tempted to fear this darkness, to forget that the good shepherd is with us, guiding and comforting us. In our fear, we can become hasty, rushing blindly and desperately through the darkness in order to get to the light that must be on the other side. But this we must not do. We must remain in the darkness as long as it takes to learn in death’s shadow the lessons we can only learn there. We must wait patiently in the darkness, trusting that God is with us and is growing new life in us. For, Jesus says, only if a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies will it bear much fruit.
If we learn to wait in the darkness for God’s gift of new life, an altogether different temptation can ensnare us. We can become comfortable and complacent in the enclosing dark of the familiar and attempt to remain there long after the lessons of the dark have been learned. In so doing, we grow cramped and confined in the darkness that once held us enfolded. Just as a baby must leave behind the warm, comforting dark of the womb in order to enter the world of light and air, so we too must leave behind the enclosing places and habits that were once a means of grace but now confine and hamper our growth in the Christ life. We must, Jesus says, be born again.
Lent is upon us, inviting us to dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, yet without fear, for the good shepherd is with us. If we remain open and receptive in the darkness of Lent, if we remember that growth most often occurs in darkness and in secret, if we let God teach us in that darkness, and if we surrender the darkness when it is time to embrace new life, we can more deeply experience Easter joy. We can rejoice, as always, that Christ has defeated death’s finality. And we can also rejoice that we have been brought from the valley of death’s shadow into the marvelous light of our resurrected Lord.