It was a long hike – and steep. A 1,000-foot climb in 1.5 miles. That’s a lot for an eleven-year-old. Well I remember that hike. It was a hot August day in Utah. We stopped frequently to drink water and enjoy some shade. We were carrying jackets and flashlights – odd burdens for such a day! But we had a destination in mind. Timpanogos Cave. I don’t think I had ever been in such a cave. And we were expected at the entrance, so trudge we did!
A ranger met us at the gate. He would be our personal tour guide. Check your batteries, water, and jackets. Check, check, and check! That last one seemed so odd, as we were sweating profusely from the hike, but we were prepared, like good scouts! Then, in we went, into the dark mystery which is this amazing cave. Immediately, we were chilled – from cool and awe together. Rock formations, slick with water, puddles the ranger told us were much deeper than we were tall, the stalactites that looked like hearts. But the thing I remember most was the moment we got into one of the cave’s large rooms and the ranger prepared us for what would happen next. He was going to turn off the lights. And then it happened. The darkness closed in on us palpably, dense and soft like a velvet glove. I could not see the hand in front of my face, though I could feel its movement. Quiet. The dark seemed to call out the silence. Total darkness, total silence, total stillness. We were deep in the heart of Mother Earth. The seconds moved like hours.
Then, we heard the scratch of paper and a match light exploded in front of us. And “exploded” is the right word for that moment. A small thing, when we light a candle, but unimaginably powerful in total absence of light. For a moment we stood with that one match as our only light, and wonder of wonders, it filled the whole room! We could see the stalactites and stalagmites; we could see the great arch of the ceiling; we could even see twinkles in the pool of water.
All it took in that moment was one tiny match to dispel the darkness and restore our sight.
One verse in Luke’s description of resurrection morning brought this whole memory tumbling into my mind: “Suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them” (24:4).
In my experience of cave darkness, I could understand that even a match light would feel like an explosion to the eyes. The cave where Jesus was buried would have been shallow and touched by outside light when the stone was rolled aside, but still, the pop of a flash bulb would cause anyone to cover their eyes. And the sudden appearance of these two messengers has the feel of a flash popping in your face.
What do we do? Duck and cover! The natural human, survival response. Exactly what these women did. They hit the floor and covered their heads. Nothing had prepared them for this moment of light.
The Bible is full of examples of the way God shows up as light. The very first page of the Bible and the very last recount light. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…, and God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). And in Revelation: “The city [of God] has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light,… The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:23-24). In between those bookends God shows up as light on the heights of Mt. Sinai, lightning and power were the evidence of divine presence. And in a calmer, daily way, God shows up as companion and guide – the white light of cloud by day and yellow light of fire by night with the people in the desert. God’s presence as light among God’s beloved ones was remembered with the continuous lights kept burning in the Tabernacle and later, the Temple. This same light begins the Sabbath observance even today, as evening falls on Fridays. Isaiah reminded the people returning from captivity that they were again a light for all people: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:3). Every Sunday night at Night Prayer, we sing the promise remembered by Simeon when he met the infant Jesus: “My eyes have seen the savior Christ the Lord, prepared by you for all the world to see; to shine on nations trapped in darkest night. The glory of your people and their light” (Luke 2:30-32).
Perhaps the grandest connection in all of the Bible of light an life is found in the writings of John. He begins his gospel with the connection of light and life. “In [Jesus] was life and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). In chapter 3, he discusses how light drives out fear. This is one of John’s insights for which I am most grateful. We often think of darkness as a synonym for evil or death. But that is limited thinking. Life is in God’s hands, even in its hard times and in its endings. So suffering and death are not darkness. They are where God dwells most powerfully, and in God’s greatest tender comfort. No the absence of light is not evil, but it is a place where fear dwells in human hearts, where the unknown lurks, where we can feel out of control.
The good news of the resurrection is that this fear is gone. Even in death, we, like Jesus, are ushered into life. Fear need not hold us. Again, John from his first letter (my paraphrase): “This is the message we have heard from Jesus and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we follow God, and walk in fear, we are not living God’s truth. But if we walk in the light, since God is light itself, we are connected and at peace with God and each other” (1 John 1:5-7). No need for fear. As John says later, “love casts out fear.”
I am reminded of accounts of near-death experiences. You’ve read at least one, I imagine. The theme in all of them I have heard is light. The experience of crossing over is like being drawn into light, they say. And, unlike the sudden encounter with light of these women at the tomb, the light these people describe is welcoming, warm, comforting – something they want to go toward, to be immersed in.
To be fair to the women at the tomb, they were probably more afraid from surprise than from the light. Later when they meet the resurrected Jesus, they run toward him and want to embrace him, to be as close as possible to this light. They were drawn to his light as the light draws those who cross over.
Light and Life. Resurrection and light. They go together like peas and carrots, as Forrest Gump would say. Why? Because light is a metaphor for the absence of fear and the presence of beauty, color, joy.
Recall what it is like when you see the first purple spears of the crocus from the dark earth. Who can help but smile? Or, the daffodils dancing even on the freeway medians, defying death and rushing and fear. Or the radiance of a rainbow, a sign that the sun has indeed broken the power of darkness and transformed it into beauty and blessing.
Resurrection is light. Resurrection, more than anything else drives out fear. The resurrection of Jesus is like that single match lit in the cave of the heart of Mother Earth. It transforms everything it touches. It calls the shadows to dance and the darkness to give birth from its womb. With resurrection, we can begin to hope that even the darkness is not fearsome, but the place where life is born.
All it takes to dispel the darkness of the huge, dark cave is just one person’s tiny light. And if that light is God’s own presence, it is more than enough to bless all life now and always. Let us live in the light of life.