Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to earth and dies,
it cannot bear fruit,”

John 12:20-33

Not long ago I received a call from a bride-to-be who wanted to schedule a wedding at Rayne. She had made the unpardonable sin of setting her date, booking her reception, ordering her invitations, and now, at last was looking for a church and a pastor.  But she was having a difficult time.  No one, she said, would do her wedding.  Every church she had called was not open on that particular day.  I asked her what day she had in mind.  It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday.  Holy Saturday. I was sorry to tell her that neither did we.  She was pretty upset.  I tried to explain to her that traditionally this is a day that for 20 centuries the church has remembered that time between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the time he spent in the tomb.  Traditionally, churches strip their altars on Good Friday and seal their sanctuaries on Holy Saturday with no scheduled activities: no word is preached, no song is sung, only a vigil held in darkness, stillness, silence, honoring the mystery of that time spent in the tomb.  Some churches shutter their windows, shroud their crosses in black, hang mourning wreaths on the doors.  We don’t go that far, but it is certainly not a wedding day.  She hung up on me.

I knew that she would be able to find a less traditional church for her wedding, for there are some who would maintain that is unnecessary.  That the whole Good Friday thing–crucifixion, death and burial, the time in the tomb, is all so dark, too negative.  Why not tear out those pages in the Bible, lighten up, stick a happy face on the cross, go straight to Easter, to the baskets, bonnets, and bunnies?  I heard of a very famous pastor who taught his congregation that L.E.N.T. stood for “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking.”

But the reason that the tradition of the church is not like that, because life is not like that. Nobody gets to Easter without going through a graveyard, because nobody gets through life without going through a graveyard.  We have all been there, at some point, standing at the graveside of a loved one, having done all we know how to do, having gone as far as we can go, at the edge of a mystery we cannot begin to fathom, and all we can do it let go. Let go.  They close the casket, seal the tomb, cover the grave. You don’t stick a happy face on that.  You go home numb and hollow to the silence and stillness of a home that will never be the same, going through the motions, picking up the pieces, like that Emily Dickinson poem: “The Bustle in a House/The Morning after Death/Is the solemnest of industries/Enacted upon Earth—“  We have all been there. If you haven’t, you just haven’t lived long enough.  Because nobody gets through life without going through a graveyard.  Through.

Not to, thank God, but through. For this is a necessary passage through which we must all go to get to the other side.  You can’t skip it.  Don’t avoid it.  Don’t shrink from it.  Don’t run from it. Enter into it, and trust.

That’s what Jesus is telling us in these verses.  He was near the end of his life. He was about to go through a very dark time.  He knew it was coming.  He knew it would be hard.  He said, “What should I say? Father, save me from this?”  Give me a free pass, an exemption, an easy way out?  No.  He understood that this was the purpose of his life, to show us that there is a Way through the experience of death itself. Through. Because of what he did for us, because of what transpired on that Holy Saturday, that time spent in the tomb, we need never fear these dark passages. Because of what he did, even the grave has become a place of hope.

These verses may be the closest thing we have to a parable in John’s Gospel.  Remember, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus tells parables.  In John, we have the “I Am” sayings.  But here he compares his life, my life, your life to a seed.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls to earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit,” it simply cannot become everything it has in itself to be.  We see this transformative process at work in all of nature: unless a caterpillar shrouds itself inside a cocoon he will never one day spread its wings as a butterfly.  Unless a baby spends 9 months in her mother’s womb, she cannot be born healthy and strong.  Unless a lily lies dormant inside a bulb, it cannot burst open in bloom.  All of this miraculous transformation happens in these dark places, where another hand is at work bringing forth new life.

I think of another parable Jesus tells in Mark about the man who plants his seed in the ground, and then what does he do? He goes to sleep. He rests. He get up in the morning, goes to bed in the evening, night and day, day after day, and all the while that seed is buried in the soil.  Is nothing happening? No, Jesus says, “The seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how…first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”  All the man can do is let go of the seed and trust another hand at work.  If we can recognize this pattern in nature, let us also recognize this same pattern in our lives.  For you and I are also sometimes led into dark places where new life incubates, hibernates, another hand at work.  Do we dare to believe that the same hand that brings forth every new dawn of every new day is the hand that knows how to work in the dark?

Remember the Simon and Garfunkel song, “The Sound of Silence”? It starts, “Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend/I’ve come talk to you again…”  Not an enemy.  Friend.  “Because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping.”  A seed.  I read that the first line of this song came from a very formative time in Paul Simon’s childhood.  Whenever he was troubled, or needed to be alone, to think, sort things out, he go into the bathroom, close the door, turn out the lights, and there in the pitch darkness, he would play his guitar, with its sound making a reverb off the bathroom tile.  In this dark place the songs would tumble from his lips and off his strumming fingers.  This was his dark place of embryonic incubating creativity, his womb, his tomb.  I read that he wrote The Sound of Silence during a dark period in his life when nothing was happening, nobody was listening to him, nobody was hearing what he had to say, nobody was interested in buying his music, his career going nowhere.  It took him 6 months to write this song–a lament about the breakdown of communication in our culture.  But this was, in fact, the song that would be the turning point for his career, his first of many hits.  Sometimes “the darkest hour is just before the dawn.”  Can we learn to see those periods of darkness, as difficult as they may be, as friend, not foe.  “Hello Darkness, my old friend.”

I am telling you this, because I know you well enough to know that some of you are going through a dark passage right now: a time of uncertainty, ambiguity, waiting for a job offer, a doctor’s diagnosis, the test results, going through chemo, hair falling out in handfuls, surgery on the schedule, a loved one deployed, a loved one in ICU, a child in trouble, a future hanging in the balance.  You have done everything you know how do, gone as far as you know how to go.  Now what?  Let go. Unless the seed falls…Trust.  Rest.  Live with this pot of dirt.  Allow another hand to work.  In the stillness and silence it will seem that nothing is happening.  Something is happening, unseen to our eyes, how does the hymn put it?  Unrevealed until its season/Something God alone can see.

On that first Holy Saturday so long ago, it was Sabbath day. A day of rest.  No work, no activity, nothing.  A day spent in stillness, silence, sadness.  Was nothing happening?  The later Epistle writers believed that on that day Jesus was very busy, that this was the day he descended, deeper than death, he went all the way down to the depths of hell to set free everyone who had died before him.  I love the thought of that while we are moping around the graveyard he is on a mission of liberation!  Was he?  We don’t know.  All we know is that not nothing was happening! Something was happening!  Something God alone can see!