Harrowing Of Hell
April 18, 2014

Good Friday 2014

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

John 18:1-19:42

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is a day of darkness. Our worship space reflects our souls, stripped bare and left raw as we sit with sadness.  This day is about the cross, covered in black as a powerful symbol of Jesus and death.  This day is about vulnerability.  Good Friday is emotion and pageantry and self-examination.  It is also a day of mourning.

The Hebrew Bible includes the word araphel fifteen times in descriptions of God’s presence.  Araphel means darkness, but not just dark as in the absence of light.  It is God’s darkness:  deep gloom, thick darkness, a heavy cloud…all of these in which God dwells.  In all three of the synoptic gospels: in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as Jesus was crucified, darkness came over the land – araphel came over the land.   For three hours on that Friday, it was dark.  A solar eclipse you might say was possible.  But it’s not, because it was the Passover, which aligns with the full moon, and you can’t have a solar eclipse during a full moon.  The earliest Greek manuscripts say “the sun was darkened” or “the sun’s light failed.”  But I think the explanation is much simpler:  it is God.

God is there in the darkness of that Friday afternoon just as God appears in darkness so many times throughout the Old Testament.   Barbara Brown Taylor, my favorite author and preacher, has a new book called Learning to Walk in the Dark, and it is all about finding God in the dark.  On this idea of araphel, she writes, araphel “is an entirely unnatural darkness—both dangerous and divine—that contains the presence of the God before whom there are no others.  This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it, the same way the brightness of God’s glory does.  Both are signs of God’s mercy, since ordinary human beings are not equipped to survive direct contact with the divine, in the dark or in the light.”

She goes on to say, “This view of darkness is far more nuanced than the one that demonizes darkness.  While this darkness is dangerous, it is as sure a sign of God’s presence as brightness is, which makes the fear of it different from the fear of snakes and robbers.  When biblical writers speak of ‘the fear of the Lord’ this is what they mean: fear of God’s pure being, so far beyond human imagining that trying to look into it would be like trying to look into the sun” (p. 47).

I found a short video online produced by NASA scientists in 2012 that shows satellite imaging of the earth at night.  It is stunning how much of the earth is bathed in light.  You can see large clusters of light in major cities, small pinpoints of light, gas flares from oil and gas exploration in the middle east, political borders, fishing boats, and wildfires.  The light in the darkness of night says a lot about our world.  It also reveals how fearful we are of darkness.  We chase it away with security lights, flashlights, headlights, and streetlights. When was the last time you found yourself in the midst of true darkness; away from blinking lights and charging lights emanating from electronics?

As darkness falls, we often close the blinds, turn on lights, and hunker down for the night with our noses still pressed against screens on computers, phones, and televisions. Call it relaxation or unwinding, but what is it really?  What are we hiding from when we chase away the darkness?  A couple of months ago, I had a mystical experience of God in the dark.  I had been sick.  As I went to bed for the night, I developed a fever, which continued to rise as I slept.  At midnight, I woke to feed the baby and was overcome by pain and disoriented from the high fever.  It was mastitis setting in, an infection taking over my body.  I decided to wait it out till morning and settled in to bed with the baby, assuring my husband I would be “just fine.”

For seven or eight hours, Myles and I drifted in and out of sleep.  He continued to nurse, which was excruciatingly painful with the infection, but I knew it would ultimately help.  We both had a cold and the humidifier was on, filling the small wood paneled room in the basement with moist air.  It was dark, except for a small red night light shining just enough to see the baby cradled in my arms.  And God was there.  God filled every nook and cranny of that small, dark, wet room. I was very sick, but totally at peace because God was holding us, surrounding us, keeping vigil with us.  God filled that room from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, and enveloped us.  God never wavered, never left my side, and watched over us until morning.  I have no doubt about that.  And in the morning, with the light of day, I realized how very sick I had become and we went directly to Urgent Care.  For the next two days, I lay in bed, upstairs in the light filled bedroom and mostly stared at the ceiling.  At the time, I assumed my body was simply fighting the infection.  But now, I wonder.  I wonder if my body was recovering from my intense experience of God.

I don’t think I ever would have had that exact experience of God in the daylight.  God’s presence came to me in the form of darkness, a wet cloud, deep darkness, and it was comforting.  Had I turned on the lamp, I think it might have slipped away.  Perhaps, in the back of my mind, I knew that.  God’s presence came as a dark cloud and filled that tiny bedroom in the basement. The unnatural darkness of Good Friday, as Jesus hung on the cross, was araphel.  It was God ever present, surrounding and enveloping Jesus and those whom he loved gathered round him.  God was wrapped around and holding up Mary, his mother, her sister, Lazarus the beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalene. The three hours of darkness was another way God got their attention and made it abundantly clear that something miraculous was happening.

When we chase away the darkness, we miss out on opportunities to experience God and God’s creation in a myriad of ways.  Our streetlights rob us of seeing the stars.  Our screens keep us from engaging one another.  Our constant stream of lights trailing before and behind us, inhibit us from even noticing God in the dark places of our lives.  Tonight is a night for darkness.  In these hours between now and Easter, I invite you to step into the darkness.  Let it surround and envelop you.  And while you are there, pray; listen and pray.