From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
Jonah’s prayer inside the fish is one of the most overlooked parts of this book. Often it seems like nothing more than a poetic interlude and we want to keep moving to the next part of the story, to the drama of Jonah being vomited onto dry ground. But I am a poet so I love poetic interludes, and I’m also curious about much that features in this prayer. First, it’s essentially a collage of other biblical prayers, full of references to the Psalms which Jonah draws on to have words for this otherwise unprecedented experience. But it’s also curious in the story it tells: a story in which God seemingly answers Jonah’s distress by sending him into the deep and making a giant fish swallow him. Neither of these circumstances are how I would typically want God to deliver me from a storm at sea. Yet God is delivering him from more than the storm; He’s delivering him from all the things that have made him run from God. To do this work in Jonah, God isn’t simply going to spare Jonah any trial. Instead, He is going to send Jonah right into darkness in order to teach him about God’s light.
I’ve often been frustrated by how Southern hemisphere summers detract from Advent’s symbolism of longing for the coming of the light. When it’s daylight until 9pm, I rarely find myself longing for light. Here again I need Jonah to remind me: sometimes the best way to encounter God’s light is to open up the dark spaces inside ourselves. Jonah’s dark spaces were his tribalist hatred of neighbour and his transactional view of God’s mercy. Mine are a sense of resentment when God’s mercy does not accord me the comforts and affirmation I think that I need. In an Australian summer, on the brink of Christmas, it can be all too easy to ignore those dark emotions until they get the better of us. Yet God often calls us to enter them with Him – and this is expressed in no better way than the life of Jesus: entering the darkness of the womb for nine months, the darkness of imperial infanticide at the time of his birth, the darkness of poverty and oppression, the darkness of persecution, the darkness of the cross, the darkness of the tomb.
Jesus told those asking for a sign that He would only give them the sign of Jonah. Like Jonah, He entered deepest darkness for three days. Yet He was not overwhelmed by the darkness; even there He is strong, stronger than death. And so we, like Jonah, can encounter Him in the dark. Like Jonah, we might even be taken into the dark to save us from our own hidden darkness. We shouldn’t be surprised if that happens; it was the very thing that Jesus came to earth to do.
After all we have done and left undone, after joy, after grief, after unbelief, after wrapping paper scattered on floor, after food is gone or stashed away, after conversations thrive or starve, after bombs are thrown and names are known, after fire and flood, after duties done, after every going down of Sun, the darkness still has not overcome, the darkness will not overcome.
…he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead. (Psalm 143:3 KJV)
One Christmas, my brother and I sleeping on fold-out beds in our grandparents’ living room, I found myself awake well past the usual hour, and my thoughts like the room plunged in obsessive black, save for a red electric glow from some unidentified source, I knew no comfort to tether me to the physical facts of things – that here I was, and there my brother was, and upstairs my grandparents slept and somewhere out there was the lapping of the sea, only knew the daggers my nighttime mind turned inwards and the sheer obsidian absence of light, and though morning and my brother’s voice restored me to earth, the night with its limitless black save that relentless red glow have clung to me since as the knowledge of Hell. I must have a light that can dispel such a dark.
But for now, in what passes as daylight,
remember those who dwell in night,
remember the night that lies before
those who fail to remember the light.
Remember the absence
of memory or light,
remember the path out of darkness
Save me, O God: for the waters are entered even to my soul. I stick fast in the deep mire, where no stay is: I am come into deep waters, and the streams run over me.
(Psalm 69:1-2, 1599 Geneva Bible)
Is it, as Bosch would have it, a sinking scene,
hut scarcely erect, while in the background
knights and crusaders fight, and crazed faces peek
through cracks in the broken structure?
If so, my crazed face peeks.
Show me the truth through the falling thatch.
Let me climb to the roof to see
the light greater than the dark in me.
Or, as for Dürer, does the Light lie in castle ruins?
Do relic-arches arc around the one who put
the promise-bow into the arching sky?
Do dark clouds gather on the edges? If so,
those clouds are me. O light eternal,
lighten the load the makes me droop and bristle.
I drown in the dry of my day.
Unwise, I come. Do not send my tattered folly away.
This is what must first be given to the painting, a harmonious warmth, an abyss into which the eye sinks, a voiceless germination…
How often is he shown with those horns of light,
as though his head were itself full
of the brightest luminescence and
two cracks, two holes
had formed inside his skull to let
escape all that light, kept
invisibly, impossibly, inside.
Yet for Rembrandt see
how darkness grabs the eye much more
than all the plainness of that face,
how even those two tablets seem
as black as all the dark to which
we’re told that he drew near, while all
of Israel stood just far enough
away to not be safe.
And when El Greco takes
the striking forms of Sinai as
his text, the darkness is
in every shadow-line beneath
the redness of the clouds, around
those rocky pillars, rising from
the chalky, sketchy ground.
Not darkness, but light, shone forth
from those two tablets when
the light-horned Moses brought them down.
Yet light like that we must squint to see.
When fear declares that only man
is safe, that we can’t bear to hear
the voice that struck the tablets’ side:
O let us step, like Moses, to
that darkness without human horns
where only in that absence
of human sight can all Your light
be ever fully seen.
Glory to your coming that restored humankind to life.
(Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns of the Nativity)
Because of the shadows, we miss our brother’s face,
our sister’s gaze.
The pace of the crowd moves us forward.
If you reached out
to touch my garment, I would not feel.
This power departs us daily:
to see, to know.
O Brother, true human:
You reach where least expected.
These shadows flee; let us not retreat.
Come where we scarce have courage to go;
to make us whole.
Carlton kept in darkness slept,
The streetlights out, the roadside swept
With rain that afternoon and feet
Bewildered by the night.
The city never sleeps, they say,
And anxious souls in search of day
Pit-pattered while inside the homes
Smart-phones took place of light.
Commerce halted, leisure paused,
Proprietors despised the cause,
While some found hope across the street
Where power caught their sight.
Not quite as thick as Egypt’s, though
A danker hue than cities know,
The darkness over Lygon Street
Unsettled with its bite.
Yet refuge lay where light still shone,
And in the end, it came back on
Across the street, and Carlton spun
Back into groove, aright.
The sounds of muffled life returned
And in the sky the streetlights burned,
Declaring never would the day
Depart, nor win the fight.