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.
Christmas hath a darkness Brighter than the blazing noon…
(Christina Rossetti, “Christmas Eve”)
Minutes before the shops shut, I walked
supermarket aisles with other forgetful ones,
gleaning the last sheaves of festive cheer
while the muzak paused to say it was time.
And two millennia ago, a carpenter and his pregnant bride
found themselves strapped for place and time,
entering mess and forgetfulness,
and God came into the dark.
And driving home I passed the lights of the street,
dazzling with their explosive brightness.
It all leads here: tomorrow shops will shut, corks will pop,
paper will rustle in symphonic joy.
And in a manger God chose the dark,
the small forgotten things, and still,
still He comes into the dark.
Our lights are too bright to see Him.
…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
At first darkness you saw it,
Light looming large on the horizon,
transfiguring and sanctifying all that it struck.
Yet you were drawn, contrariwise,
to a glistening object that,
no light of its own, could only reflect
or, at worst, refract.
Distracted by prismatic brilliance,
you answered the wrong call,
saw charisma and grabbed at it.
Only, Light denied you. Fistful of air,
you returned to your bedroom and sat
where only Light equipped to pierce darkness could reach. Okay, speak, you said reluctantly in the direction of the Light.
And so the Light began.
And so your life began.
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.