The Dazzling Dark--Reflections on the Columbia Disaster

The Dazzling Dark

Reflections on the Columbia Disaster
and the Feast of the Purification of Mary

by The Rev. Dr. Diana Beach

Candlemas, 2003
Chelsea Community Church at St. Peterıs, Chelsea

When the time had come for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. Luke 2:22-40

This is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, and I have a particular and compelling reason for revisiting this gospel this morning, as shall unfold presently. February 2 is a very ancient Christian feast, celebrated as Candlemas, the time the candles for the year are blessed as a sign of the aged Simeonıs words, that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited ³light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.² Christ is the Epiphany of God, which means the ³shining forth² of the Light. In England and Ireland the practice is even more ancient, where the blessed candles were carried in procession to ³beat the bounds² of the fields and pray for the successful planting to come. This goes back to Celtic times when the fire carried in procession was sacred to the Goddess Brigid at the feast of Imolc, the season of milking, of the Celtic spring.

In the dim cavern of the Temple in Jerusalem, or a dark Irish February field the image of the Light of Christ may have had a compelling and self-evident meaning. But what does it carry for us today? We who, if anything, suffer from too much light--too much power, too much glory?

Seventeen years ago I stood in this very pulpit at Candlemas a few days after the space shuttle Challenger had blown up, killing seven other astronauts, including the young school teacher and mother, Christa McCauliffe. My thoughts then are if anything even more true now. A teacher friend and I were lamenting in l986 that her high school kids didnıt understand what the big deal was about, why the nation should be so mourning this loss. I have heard it again this week-- ³so what? itıs just another plane crash. It wasnıt terrrorists so why should we pay attention?² Most of us last week, including me, had no idea the astronauts were even up there. Yet another generation of children has grown up who never heard John Glen, the first man in space, read the the beginning of Genesis while orbiting the earth to an astonished world on Christmas Eve. Many of us now have Palm Pilots which outdo the telemetry of the first space capsule. Our urban children are growing up never even seeing the stars these men and women have reached for because of the overabundance of light. The space shuttle is as little remarked on as the shuttle to Washington, or to Times Square. We see all too clearly by the human light of our glorious technology and even the stars pale into insignificance.

With all this excessive brightness the Light of Christ now seems such an ordinary, unnecessary miracle. I submit to you then that we must reverse the image, that Christ today will be found not in the light but in the dazzling dark. Not in what we know or in what we seem to see so clearly, but in the darkness of the mystery at the heart of human experience--in all that is unknown, uncanny, painful and uncontrolable. It is this dazzling darkness which still can claim us, which still has the power to make us stand amazed.

Perhaps it is time to return to the earlier understanding of the Feast of the Presentation, which once focused not on the infant Christ but on the Purification of Mary, his mother. Mosaic Law held that a woman was ritually unclean for thirty days after the birth of a son, 80 days after the birth of a daughter, during which time she was not allowed to touch sacred things or enter the Temple. She then went to the temple to make sacrifice and be purified in order to return her to the ordinary world. We tend to see this as an inherently sexist anachronism, a primitive taboo, but the notion of women as unclean had underlain the debate on the ordination of women and the practice into recent years of the ³churching of women² after childbirth.

We have, since Christa McCauliffe went into space, as much lost count of women astronauts as we have of women in the clergy, but I still believe we need to recover the archetypal power of the ancient custom of purification. I know I have just lost all the feminists, but hold on; this works. Women are taboo after childbirth not because they are powerless and inferior but because they have too much power. For most of human history the power of women to give birth was viewed not just as messy and distasteful but as vested with the deepest mystery of life itself. A woman bleeds and is not wounded, brings forth a human being out of her own body, in the pangs and glory of childbirth goes to the outer limits of the human condition--goes into the very jaws of death and snatches from there new life. Is it any wonder then that such a woman, who has been to the very edge of human imagination, her own life held utterly in the hands of God, that such a woman would be seen with the raw power of her experience still clinging to her, her eyes filled with the vision of that dazzling darkness--that such a woman might be seen as an object of fear and danger and that her community might seek to isolate her and her dark power until she can be returned to a comfortable ordinary state? The rite of purification is a ritual of that perilous passage of return from the dazzling dark.

Christa McCauliffe and Laurel Clarke were mothers, as is Eileen Collins, the commander of the next space shuttle mission. For them space travel is yet another way they stretch beyond our known safe world into the heart of the mystery of life and death. They have cause to know just how perilous a passage it is to return from the dazzling dark. For us on the ground our technologies seem to shield us from so many such experiences, but life has been lived on the edge and is being lived still by most human beings on the planet. Each of our own lives can have moments when we too touch that holy darkness, doorways to mystery through which Christ can enter our lives. Moments of pain, moments of loss and heartache, moments when we look death in the face. And as well moments of supreme exhilaration, of joy past all power to comprehend. moments when we are struck dumb by wonder.

As we for the second time hear the eulogies to seven astronauts who died for their dream and ours, we catch again the incredible longing and wonder that has driven us human beings toward the stars, driven us beyond the very limits of the world we know and can comprehend--into the dazzling darkness of the heavens. A mystery deep enough for God to meet us in.

What did these women experience as they slipped the bonds of earth, as Christa and Laurel and Kalpana and their brothers went to the very edge of human experience? And if that moment of pure mystery plumbed, that moment when they touched the face of God--if that moment of their greatest life had not also not been the moment of their death, what then? If they had indeed returned to tell us, what rite, what ritual what debriefing, what purification would we have required of them to come back among us? Is that so different from that young woman of Nazareth who went into the jaws of death to bring back her child, Jesus, a journey that began in the dark wings of an angel and was to end in the shadow of the cross? Do we not greet all these cosmic travelers like Coleridgeıs Ancient Mariner:

Weave a circle round her thrice
and cross yourself with holy dread,
for she on honeydew has fed
and drunk the milk of Paradise.

In this feast of Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in theTemple, the Purification of the Virgin Mary may we who have become so blase about the Light remember the dazzling dark, and pray that once in our lives we too may pass through the doorway of mystery where Christ awaits us. May we see Him face to face before we too, like Simeon, depart in peace. AMEN.

We stand today on the threshold of another perilous passage, into, I fear a darkness that is anything but holy, the darkness of war. There seems to be in this country again an excess of light, an excess of triumphalism, of hubris, of overweaning entitlement, of overreliance on military might and technology. May we pray that this unholy darkness may be averted and that the subtle shadings of negotiation, compassion, diplomacy, and humility may prevail. Let us remember that the Prince of Pace was not a warrior but a baby. Let us pray most fervently for peace.


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