by Melissa Florer-Bixler
Herald Press, 2019
This December, we are publishing a series of essays that reflect on the Advent season and grapple with its apocalyptic lectionary scriptures.
The following is a modified excerpt from Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, which will be published in April 2019.
“I read the book of Job last night—I don’t think God comes well out of it.” —Virginia Woolf
During Advent my thoughts often turn to Job. Darkness is the main character and the God we find there keeps us on edge.
It’s understandable that, for the upright Job, darkness is everywhere—circling around his eyes, blocking his way, the color of a bed made within a grave. Job is unsettled by the dark. It is in no friend: “He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths” (Job 19:8). Job doesn’t fear the dark; he is lost in it. The God he knew has disappeared into the shadows; the God he worshiped is gone. Job searches around for new names for God and finds them: enemy, jailer, hunter, spy (13:24, 27; 19:8; 7:20).
I know Job’s terror. For years as a child I was afraid of the dark. In defense of my life against what I believed were unseen and unnatural entities roaming under my bed, waiting for a chance to attack, I would quickly turn off the light on my nightstand and yank my hand under the covers as fast as I could. Like many children, I had a strange intuition that light could not protect me from whatever unseen things emerged into my room in the night. I hid, sweltering, under heavy blankets. Only a deeper darkness could keep me safe from that which crept in the light of my imagination.
Job cannot fathom that darkness holds a promise. And into this despair, God offers Job a tender and disarming image. It comes as one of a long series of questions hurled toward a presumably stunned Job. “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” God thunders, “when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band?” (Job 38:8-9). God relays to Job the story of the infant sea bursting from the womb, then wrapped in bands of darkness to comfort it and keep it still. Darkness is a blanket, tightly gathering in a newborn child. Darkness is comfort, comfort at the gift of losing the God of our own making.
Job’s struggle with darkness echoes in other Scriptures. One of the most disturbing and descriptive accounts of darkness in the Old Testament is found in Psalm 88. “Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” the psalmist asks (Psalm 88:12). The God the psalmist seeks is hidden, a purveyor of wrath and dread. Unlike almost all other psalms of lament, this psalm makes no attempt at a tidy ending, provides no assurance of the constant fidelity of God. When I hear the final line of Psalm 88, I imagine this prayer in the mouth of Job. The final chilling words are whispered into the silence: “darkness is my closest companion.”
But when God finally answers Job “from the whirlwind,” it is an approach from the center of a dark storm. God speaks, shouts, hurls words toward Job. Job’s God must first be lost in darkness and found there again.
Job taught me to love the dark, and to love what I might find there. I imagine this is why I am ready when the hinge of the year swings open the door to Advent, the season in the church devoted to waiting in darkness.
Each year Advent is waiting for me. Before Christmas, and often in the face of mind-numbing consumption, Advent makes room for the dark. In this season, we find ourselves like Job. We let ourselves lose the God we’ve come to expect, to keep watch, and to see what comes in the night. Advent is the time when we stay awake, readying ourselves for the discomfort of encountering new names, of letting the God we thought we knew fade into obscurity.