If you have ever been to a Taize service, you may have heard or sung this chant over and over again for about five minutes: “Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away.” Or maybe you never heard this, so I’ll repeat it.
“Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away.”
That’s what popped into my head this week as I was re-reading Luke’s story about Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus. At the end of the episode, the two travelers say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Within their darkest night, this stranger kindled a fire that never died away.
They really were within their darkest night. They had placed all their hopes in Jesus as the leader of a revolution that would kick out the Romans and usher in a totally new world order centered around Jerusalem, with Jesus as the new king. Yes, Luke tells us that Jesus had repeatedly warned his followers that his revolution was definitely not going to be that kind of revolution. But it seems that nobody picked up on that, least of all these two travelers.
And this wasn’t just any hope, not like hoping for sunny weather. This was Hope with a capital “H.” This was the hope that gave all their other hopes meaning. It had become the love of their life. And now the love of their life had been taken away. And it was not coming back. No revolution. The Romans were clearly here to stay. Who cares about rumors of an empty tomb? That’s no revolution. Night doesn’t get any darker than this.
That’s where at least some of us are right now—within our darkest night. It depends on how much you have lost, or might lose. Some of us may have lost a loved one to this unpredictable virus. Others may have lost the livelihood they had been counting on, a livelihood that gave their life meaning, with no idea of what will be left for them after the worst of this pandemic subsides. (I’m a campus chaplain, and that is exactly the kind of darkness one college senior shared with me last week.) Many of us are in a less definite space. It’s not darkest night, at least not yet. But we are haunted by the prospect that things could get much darker than they are now. So even if you or I are not as devastated as these two travelers were, we know we could wind up there very quickly, and that is where some of us are already. We’re with these travelers on the road away from Jerusalem, the city that had meant everything.
That’s when a stranger shows up. Luke says it’s really Jesus, but to these two travelers he doesn’t look anything like the Jesus they remember. At first he acts clueless, as if he doesn’t already know why they are devastated. Then he turns rude. Instead of empathizing, he launches into a long-winded lecture on the whole Bible.
Rude or not, we’d better listen. It turns out, the stranger says, that there’s more than one way to read the Bible. You can read the Bible as the story of how God and God’s people win by winning. Their enemies never succeed and are quickly put in their place. That’s a popular way to read the Bible, and it’s the way these travelers have been reading it.
But there’s another way to read it. It’s a stranger way, so it doesn’t catch on as easily.
What if the Bible is the story of how God and God’s people don’t win by winning? What if instead they win by losing? What if their enemies succeed even to the point of executing “true God from true God” on a cross? What if the power of God it is not the power to take over the world and put everything in its place? What if it’s the power to suffer the worst the world can do and yet refuse to be driven away? What if it’s the power not to rescue us from pain but to go through the pain with us and bring us through it to a new awakening? What if our darkest night turns out to be God’s darkest night? What if that’s where the deathless fire is kindled? What if that’s where we have to be in order to see this fire?
That’s what these two travelers start to hear, and that’s when the deathless fire gets kindled. They don’t notice yet, but it’s starting to happen.
So as the sun begins to set, they find enough fortitude to invite this stranger to share their evening meal. And as he starts acting like a presider at the Eucharist, they suddenly realize they are in the presence of Jesus’ God-filled life.
Wonderful! Except that’s the very moment he vanishes. Talk about exasperating! Luke shows us a risen Jesus who doesn’t look anything like Jesus until he vanishes! But maybe that’s how this utterly peculiar God, this God who wins by losing, shows up in our lives—fleetingly.
Yes, Jesus is risen, but the revolution these travelers had longed for was definitely not going to happen. They couldn’t even show him to Pilate to prove him wrong. As far as the Romans and most of Jerusalem was concerned, this first Easter Sunday was just another day, except for some possibly deluded Jesus-followers who couldn’t face reality. For his followers he’s risen; for everybody else it’s fake news.
But it’s precisely when Jesus vanishes, when they don’t get the revolution they expected, that these travelers also begin to notice the fire he had kindled, the fire that never dies away. The fire doesn’t banish the darkness, but the darkness can’t extinguish it. As John tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). IN the darkness, not after—that’s where the light shines, where the fire gets kindled.
There are times in our lives when we speak of resurrection as a sunrise. And why not? There are times when we really need to celebrate and NOT be reminded that night is still coming. But this is a time when it’s harder for many of us to get that festive. Many of us are still on the road with these travelers. We are quite literally waiting for a time when we can once again gather in person to break bread. But it’s while we are on this road, virtually together, that our shared scripture lessons can open to us in ways we might have missed, so we can look back and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us?”
Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away. Amen.