by Elizabeth Rawlings
I was recently talking with a friend of mine about the difficulty of the use of dark and light in scripture -- especially as we move into Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. For many of us this language is so incredibly useful. In English, we have so many phrases that equate difficult times with darkness and hope with light. I know I often think about my own bouts of depression as being trapped in darkness and searching for light. And yet we have to be aware of the effect this constant equating of light and dark with good and evil has on our psyches when it comes to skin color, and what it would be like if the same word often used to describe your skin was always equated to bad in everything from Star Wars to scripture.
This friend pointed out to me that, in German, the words for light and dark skin are different than those for light as in day/sun/brightness and dark as in night/without brightness (see, it's even hard to just describe the difference because of our language). Hebrew isn't that different. To one who reads Hebrew, these words would clearly express illumination/lack thereof without association with skin tone. The words for dark and light used here are the same used in Genesis 1:4. And yet, as we read this in English, the broad possibilities of light and dark do lend to many interpretations. Even if we aren't coming out and saying the use of light and dark here is about skin tone (and most of us likely aren't), words and symbols are important. They seep into our brain and make connections we may not even be aware we are making. Without intentionally deconstructing these connections, our brains will always make light/dark: good/evil connections.
As we move through the season, it is important for us to talk about these things, to examine and deconstruct the way we talk about light and dark when talking about scripture -- to understand the way our use of dark and light can effect our perceptions of of our siblings. As long as we refuse to have these conversations, as long as we just keep doing the same old thing because it is fine with us or it's the way we have always done it, we are not heeding the words of scripture. We are ignoring the prophets call to break the chains of oppression -- we further it.
The fact that we are having this conversation -- the fact that more and more people are willing to dig deep to see the big and small ways our culture (which culture, church culture) contributes to the oppression of others is where glimmers of hope reside. It is doing the same old thing day after day, putting out heads down and going along to get along that extinguishes hope. Hope lives in the overturning of things as they are for the oppressed in all times and places. This is also the case for the writers and audience of Isaiah.j Like most scripture, these verses cannot neatly be places over our current situation, but it can speak to us. The people to who wrote this needed to speak of hope. They and their communities were walking in what must have felt like an endless night. The people who had been conquered, who were living under the rule of harsh oppression felt as though God's promise to the people of Israel was dead and the promise to David was no more. And yet! There is a child born in the line of David! God's promise is still alive! Not only is this promise still alive, this promise means that there will be victory for the Jewish people, that the boots of their Assyrian conquerors (the word for boots used here is an Assyrian word, meaning it is very specific) and their garments will be rolled in blood. God is coming to get those who conquered and oppressed the people of Israel, led by one of David's own line.
As tempting as it is for many to read this as being about Jesus, it's not. It's written to a people thousands of years before Jesus and is meant to speak to them in immediacy, not to wait for 2,000 years.
However, there is hope in this for us too. Hope that God keeps God's promises. Hope that God conquers empire. That freedom comes to the oppressed. That those who lurk in the shadows, cowering and afraid, will have their lives illuminated, and that illumination will be one of peace and love and hope. There is hope in the fact that there is always new life being born into this world and each and every time there is the opportunity for more love, more beauty, for a baby to grow to change the world -- and that baby doesn't have to be in David's line *or* Jesus, it just needs to live in love.
Oh, another note. It's super hard to pay attention to everyones pain this time of year (or any time), but as we walk towards the time of year when we are focusing on the joy of babies and how babies make everything new and all of that, find ways to show you are aware that people struggle with fertility, lose babies, or just don't want them in the first place. Us non-breeders have many reasons for being childless, and a lot of those are painfully brought up this time of year.
Go forth to preach in hope -- for a child was born, is born, will be born to bring us hope, to bring us peace, to bring us the kingdom of God.
Thanks to Rabbi Oren Hayon for help on the Hebrew and Ben Morris for the German!