Monday, April 13, 2009

The Lord of Darkness Revealed: Playing Flashlight Tag in the Underworld

At the candlelit beginning of the Easter Vigil, the Exultat sings:

Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.

What do we mean by these things? What is light? What is darkness? Is the darkness vanquished by Easter the simple shroud of the night or is it something more sinister, an evil hidden in the recesses of the human heart that is revealed in all its starkness when Jesus' death causes all the whitewashed tombs to open?

I suspect that my fascination with the dark stems from living more in it than I might care to admit. Although I cannot see it -- it is hard for a diurnal being to navigate by night -- the wise ones assure me that I am more unconscious than awake. The popular culture of literalism abounds with images of the Dark. Children thrill with recognition when it appears. Half my boy students identify with the powerful child Anakin Skywalker. From vampires who hide in the subway to Tolkien’s Sauron, Rowling’s Voldemort and Lucas’ Darth Vader, we look high and low for the lord of this dark and seek to vanquish him, thinking that in so doing, we have done the work of light. But have we? Are these stories correct? Can we vanquish the darkness or is something even greater required? Who, or what, is the Lord of Darkness?

I know this: everybody dreams about him. He’s the monster under the bed, the alligator in the closet, the reason why children are fascinated by dinosaurs and adolescent girls are seduced by strangers. My first remembered dream, dreamed at about the age of four, featured a huge, looming witch who emerged from the shadows to chase me through the night. Much more recently, one of my students dreamed of a soccer ball that rolled into a room where people were eating. Its pulsing black pentagons turned the color of blood. Smoke came out as the soccer ball split in half and turned into a monster which devoured them all. The dreamer survived.

That is a fact about dark lords. We all seem to survive our encounter with them. Even Cedric Diggory, slain by Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire reemerged in another film as the irresistible vampire Edward Cullen. Death, both in the dream world and in the Gospel is not the end we would have it be. It is, rather, transformation. Transformation is a great deal more complicated than death. Death says only it is all over. Transformation, on the other hand, says it is just only beginning.

This is such a very great mystery that no one has really come close to explaining it. Many have mapped the Paschal Mystery, but a map only shows us the landmarks, not why they are where they are or what they hold in store for us. The map allows us to enter into intriguing and important conversations with our skewed assumptions in a world turned upside down. What is the meaning of an empty tomb? What is the good? Is evil simply the absence of this good or does it have an independent reality of its own? If it has reality of its own, what is the nature of that reality? When we say that Christ was crucified for our sins, does it mean that our sins were laid to rest on the cross or that our sins put him there? What is the saving action that we celebrate during the Easter season? Is it an empty tomb that isn’t really empty because there are angels in it? Is it a resurrection body? And since we are on the subject, what, exactly, is a resurrection body? Mary didn’t recognize Jesus when she saw him, but she knew him when he spoke her name, (in the beginning, after all, was the word); Cleopas and his unnamed companion did not recognize his voice, but they knew him in the breaking of the bread. Paul remains, enigmatically, as one “untimely born,” his vision on the road to Damascus literally blinding.

In psychological terms, the events of the Triduum, the washing of the feet, the arrest in the garden, the strange, nocturnal trial, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, are all about the release of the unconscious. When Jesus dies on the cross, the earth shakes, the tombs are opened, and everything that was thought to have been put to rest reappears. It is like encountering all the hidden and unacceptable parts of myself, set free in a single, saving act. All that I previously thought to be hideous and embarrassing is all of a sudden blessed. All that I thought was dead is suddenly very much alive. The resurrection wants me whole!

The spiritual life comes not to make me nice, or well behaved, although these might certainly happen, it comes to make me whole.

Meanwhile, the crucifixion teaches that there are very real forces out there that would like to keep me ignorant and in my place.

Like a pilgrim seeking to awaken all that is asleep within, Jesus descended to the dead to free the dead. In darkness did he defeat the darkness, for all that happened in the tomb beyond the reach of human eyes.

But during Easter, we get a glimpse. We can play flashlight tag in the underworld.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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