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Darkness, Shadow, Light
Joel Kurz

A small group of parishioners silently worked its way through our congregation’s backyard that Friday, stopping at various points for a reading and prayer led by our seminary intern. It was Good Friday, and we had set up the Stations of the Cross on the vast lawn behind the church. At each station, I held up a black-and-white image depicting the scene. Although we were commemorating a day of darkness, that afternoon was actually bright and warm. I studied the billowy cloud above our cross-topped steeple as we listened and prayed, noting that it looked like a shroud ready to receive the dead body of Jesus.

As we walked, it all seemed too idyllic, too stylized, too sanitized. I thought of those who walk the stations in the places of pain where they live—where murders have happened, where violence persists, where hope is derelict. The body of Jesus, stripped of all dignity and encompassed by darkness, was hard to see on this day of light at the height of spring, but that’s when the shadow was cast.

'God of Shadows,'Nathan Kurz' art installation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri

At the second-to-last station, a short, bearded man with dark hair and a duffle bag walked across the lawn and joined us. He was on his phone, speaking sparsely and in a muffled tone, seemingly attentive to what was unfolding. Who is he?  I wondered. Is he from the newspaper? If not, what’s in the bag? Although I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, I found myself wondering if he had a sinister plot. I was sure that some of the parishioners were entertaining the same thought and trusting that I would intervene.

We moved on to the last station—the portico-covered, cement-slab entryway to our building, perfect for our recollection of Jesus’ dead body placed in the tomb. Just as we started that somber litany, a homeless man I know burst onto the scene—a slurred crier raggedly clothed and calling out, He could die! He needs help, please! I handed the placard to someone in our group and went with him, the bearded stranger coming along and already calling 911.

Behind the strip-mall adjacent to our lot was a man on the pavement by a dumpster, near death from alcohol poisoning. I recognized him right away; only a few weeks earlier he had come to our portico looking for a place to stay, and I had taken him—shaking with DTs—to the recovery center, where we talked and prayed with a counselor before getting his permission to call an ambulance. Now here it was past noon on Good Friday and I was on the pavement with him, holding his hand missing several fingers, praying to the Suffering Servant, and trying to coax this man alive.

Once the ambulance took him away, the bearded stranger walked with me to my office and told me why he had come. He had been a loader for a trucker but got dumped after a falling-out. Abandoned and without resources, he was trying to get out to California to live with his brother. Someone had told him to come find me for help. We had a connected conversation about life and Good Friday, what had happened to him and the man by the dumpster—how he had helped, and how truly good it was to get him a train ticket and on his way.

Shadow

During a midweek service the following Advent, while singing through Holden Evening Prayer in our sanctuary, the familiar words of the Evening Hymn hit me with newfound resonance: “God of daybreak, God of shadows, come and light our hearts anew.” Moments earlier we had sung about Jesus being the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome, and prayed that he would let his light scatter the darkness and shine within his people gathered here. We were in the dark of night and winter in an illumined sanctuary, approaching winter solstice and the turning of darkness to light in the incarnation of Jesus, the Light of Light. My mind and heart immediately turned to the crucifixion piece that had been installed on our north wall since the previous Palm Sunday—a bent-wire and painted burlap work by my brother called “God of Shadows.”

He had sculpted the wire into the body of Jesus and covered it with black resin back in 2011. I was with him that fall in Munich to help install it and its surrounding white panels for his exhibit On the Road to Nineveh. Among those attending the gallery was an atheist who found the piece profoundly moving and engaged my brother in a deeply searching discussion about life and death, suffering and meaning. In the five years following, however, the piece was stored away and seen by no one.

After having been shipped and reassembled, “God of Shadows” went public in our sanctuary just in time for Holy Week’s culminating recollection of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Those who looked to the side wall saw the darkened figure of Jesus—visible as a prisoner between three metal bars connected to three panels of white. Depending on the lighting and the time of day, shadows cast themselves on that wall and those panels, inviting the viewer to reflect on the personal and divine borderlands between darkness and light. A brochure that my brother wrote to accompany the work states, “Let us not forget…that the magnificence of light is revealed through the dark—and not in its absence. In art, as in life, shadows are essential to complete the image—to shape, reflect, and give meaning to the light.”  

Twenty-one years ago, when I was setting up my first apartment, I began using candles and oil lamps instead of electric light. In stark contrast to the bright lights that banish darkness, the faint flames illumine only their immediate environs and create shadows on surrounding walls. I need this reminder that everything is not illuminated; that we dwell in places and circumstances where even a faint light holds the darkness at bay and exposes what otherwise would not have been seen.

Light

In October of 1977, the noted surgeon, professor, and essayist Richard Selzer spoke these words at the dedication of Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma: “What a far cry this is from my idea of what a church ought to be. It is more than a far cry; it is a far shriek…. For one thing, it is too bright. All this immense wattage! As though you have somehow captured the sun itself, and given orders that it brighten the corners where you are. Light bulbs betray us, give away our arrogance and terror…. You let in the light and you flush away the mystery” (83). Despite our need of shadow, how many of us cannot help but long for effusive light that disperses the hold of darkness? We cannot help but exclaim with the psalmist that our souls know the weight of the dark and “wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning” (130:6). How can we not exult in Christ the Light bursting from the darkened tomb in this time past the spring equinox, when longer daylight, increasing warmth, and green growth pushes toward resurgence?

During Easter, those raised from death through baptism into Christ can scarcely do better than live with renewed attentiveness to what Paul (who himself saw the Risen Jesus in blinding light) laid clearly before the Ephesian Christians: “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:8-10). The Church cannot help but revel in and live out the light that God has given and that makes us partakers of resurrection in Christ. Remembering past darkness can indeed amplify the light and remind us of its redeeming purpose.

Selzer ended his address forty years ago with these stunning words that I believe can guide us in living as light in darkness, attentive to shadow: “I applaud the democracy with which God dispenses holiness, having taken the bulk of it away from those few old men and young virgins in whom it formerly reposited, and spread it about among the rest of us, so that we, each of us, Jew and Gentile, priest and prostitute, can count on being graced by at least one shaft of it before we die. One shaft of grace … But that’s enough. For in that moment, it is given to us to know Love” (90).

Kurz, Nathan. “God of Shadows,” art installation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Warrensburg, Missouri.

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Selzer, Richard. “Why I Left the Church,” in Confessions of a Knife. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

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