It’s not too often that the time of day a worship service is held becomes the focus of the service. But because we worship together so rarely in the evening, and because this is the first time, at least in my short memory, that Sunday morning worship has been canceled to be replaced with an evening service, it provides us with an opportunity to meditate on the gifts that the end of the day offers. The gifts of evening, of night. The gifts of darkness. The world turns, now with its back to the sun, and faces the expanses of space. And as our planet turns, our minds turn, our spirits turn – toward possibilities, toward dreams, the expansiveness that the day hides.
Light is such an important and pervasive spiritual symbol, that it might be a bit of an unfamiliar notion to welcome darkness as a positive presence. We are in the season of Epiphany, the season of light. We celebrate that Christ has been born, the light of the world for Jews and Gentiles. The longest night of the year is behind us, and, even though over half of the 24 hour day is still dark, the days are slowly getting longer. The light is here, and the light is all the more on its way.
Darkness often serves as a negative metaphor for everything the light saves us from – ignorance, isolation, hatred, evil. John’s gospel sets up its message of good news by saying, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (13:12) Darkness and night bad. Light and day good.
The Psalms are the prayer book of the Hebrew Scriptures, and I did some searching through them to look for references to the night, thinking there might be a similar kind of dualism, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. In the Psalms, the night is not an enemy of the day. It is frequently spoken of as a time of unique communion with God, and one’s own soul.
The very first words of the Psalter, Psalm 1:1-2 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.
Psalm 16:7 I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.
Psalm 42:8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night God’s song is with me.
Psalm 77:6 I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:
And the Psalm from which I took the title for the sermon:
Psalm 74:16 Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.
The Hebrew mind of our Old Testament was not as dualistic as the Greek mind which leaves its imprint on the New Testament. For the Psalmist in these verses, the night is not a time to escape and be delivered from. It is a time of watchful meditation, of being instructed by one’s heart, a time of being visited by the Lord. Night is a time of song.
Consider those experiences of encountering God’s voice and presence in the night.
Consider those intimate conversations with friends, with parents, with partner, which could only have happened after the sun had set.
Consider your prayers in the night.
Consider your dreams.
Consider the evening campfires of our distant ancestors, long before scroll and ink, pen and paper, keyboard and screen. Stories told and retold, movements danced and re-danced, telling you who you are. Where you fit. How you belong.
Consider Abraham walking out of his tent and gazing up at the night sky. In the darkness, the signs of a promise come out, fading away during the sharp brightness of the day, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” How many times, how many nights, did old Abraham and Sara look up at night and recall those words?
Consider Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness, hearing the rabbi say that if one is to enter the kingdom of God, one must be born again – must slip back into the darkness of the womb, where one is carefully re-formed before being reintroduced to the light.
Just don’t go to sleep quite yet.
I like to watch TED talks online, which feature people at the leading edge of their field speaking about what they’re doing and discovering. There is a short TED talk, by Jessa Gamble, called “Our natural sleep cycle.”
Gamble helped lead a study of people who gave up their watches and all ways of keeping time and lived in a bunker underground for several months, away from the natural light and darkness cycles of earth’s rotation. Absolutely no way to mentally gauge time. For the first number of weeks the people slept at all kinds of odd hours, working on their own body clock. After this they each settled into the same pattern.
Our natural sleep cycle, which re-emerged in these brave souls willing to do this experiment, is that we actually sleep two times a night. They went to bed around 8pm, slept for four hours, and then woke up around midnight, then went back to bed around 2am and slept until around 6am, about sunrise, although they had no way of knowing that. Eight total hours of sleep, in the middle of which they experienced two hours of quiet wakefulness, during which their bodies have a surge of prolactin, way beyond what we typical modern folks ever experience – a hormone which, among other things, is an important regulator of the immune system and stress reduction.
Participants in the study reported feeling so awake during day time that they felt like this was the first time they were experiencing true awakeness. Gamble calls our sleeping habits “The most underrated force on our behavior.” She closes her talk by describing the hectic and electricity-aided ways of our present way of life, ending with the tantalizing statement, “our modern ways of doing things have their advantages, but I believe we should understand the costs.”
Other researchers have confirmed segmented sleep, as they call it, as the historical norm, even all the way up to the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found over 500 references in diaries, medical records, and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Charles Dickens, mentioning a first sleep and second sleep of the night (same reference).
This is almost tempting enough to start going to bed at 8pm every night. Maybe some day. Watchfulness and meditation in the night, it turns out, are built into the deepest recesses of our genetic code, an ancient rhythm our bodies have not yet forgotten. One might imagine those two hours in between sleeps being used for prayer, love-making, singing, or the occasional walk. Today they could also be used for reading, for journaling, yoga, or for watching TED talks – although I doubt if staring at pixels on a screen in the middle of the night is going to lead to an experience of true wakefulness in the morning.
One of the things that does apply directly to us here is that lying awake in the middle of the night, rather than being a sign that something is wrong, something to be anxious about, is most likely perfectly natural. Relax and let your body tell you when it’s ready for sleep part two.
Psalm 119:148 My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.
But the Psalms do not paint an entirely rosy picture of what the night hours bring.
Psalm 6:6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.
Psalm 22:2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
Psalm 30:5 Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
For the Psalmist, night is also a time when the composure that one must carry during the day lets down its guard and dissolves into weeping. Weeping for what, we’re not told specifically.
The Psalmist seems to be familiar with what we might now call “crying yourself to sleep,” or in Psalm 22, crying yourself to insomnia.
We know from stories of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress that the night is not a refuge. It can be a time of revisiting those high adrenaline time in combat. The eyes shut for the night and the violent scenes appear as fresh as yesterday. Restful sleep is elusive.
I am far from being an expert on those particular struggles, but wonder if even these experiences of tears and terror during the night hours are part of the body’s attempt at healing. Releasing what needs to be released. Replaying what needs to be replayed, until it can be remembered differently. Until the horror has a wide enough crack for the song to enter. With the guidance of caring healers, and the grace of God, even these experiences might be transformed when one befriends the darkness, welcomes it as a companion. A guide which leads one through the valley of the shadow of death without ever telling or showing you what the next step will be.
Consider the enduring gift of Jesus to his friends and followers on their final night together, the gift of himself in the form of wine and bread, given after darkness had come over the day. Mark chapter 14: “When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus…took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ 26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
Yours also the night.
It is now night, and we welcome the darkness. We welcome being visited by God. We welcome rest. We welcome the hymns of the night and these gifts of wine of bread which sustain us.
It is not yet the midnight-2am time of quiet wakefullness, but as we prepare to share in Communion, I invite us to spend five minutes, five whole minutes, in silence. Pondering any of these words, listening to your heart, welcoming God’s presence in a new way, or simply listening to noises of the evening inside and outside this building.