Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey,
On Palm Sunday, I preached at All Saints' Church in Princeton. In my sermon, I shared with them the concept of "luminous darkness." I had learned of this concept years ago, when I was teaching a course on the English mystics.
The English mystics were men and women of the 14th century who lived lives of strict prayer and discipline to deepen their relationship with God in Christ. Among the English mystics are numbered Dame Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Margery Kempe and Walter Hilton.
In a volume on Walter Hilton that is part of the
Classics of Western Spirituality series, scholars John Clark and Rosemary Dorward refer to "luminous darkness" in which "the journey from worldly love to love of God is compared to the passage of one day, through the intervening night, to the following day." [i]
It seems to me that Holy Week is precisely an entrance into "luminous darkness." We begin with excitement and anticipation - palms being blessed, "Hosannas" being sung - telling a story of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Everything appears to be full of light; filled with hope and joyful expectation. The light, however, quickly turns to darkness as we confront the Passion.
Within the English mystical tradition, there is an understanding that God's love is so excessively bright that it appears to the human soul as darkness. [ii] Think of looking directly at the sun at midday. You can't. If you look at the midday sun you will see darkness. The light is too bright, excessive. This is luminous darkness.
Look at Christ Jesus crucified. Look at the one
who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form...humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross...(Philippians 2:6 - 8).
The cross is a form of luminous darkness; the luminous darkness of life laid down for love. The light is excessive. It takes time in the shadows of Good Friday to see light in the darkness of Christ's passion. But soon after, on Sunday morning, the light begins to dawn as we discover anew the power and love of God made clear in Christ's resurrection. Easter comes and with its coming, we join our voices and sing:
Welcome happy morning!
Susan joins me in wishing you and yours a joyous Easter filled with the excessive light and love of the risen Christ.
Blessings and love to you all,
The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, D.D.
Bishop of New Jersey
The Classics of Western Spirituality - Walter Hilton - The Scale of Perfection (New York and Mahwah: The Paulist Press, 1991, p. 45.
[ii] Classics, p. 45, 48.