I was city-born and city-raised, living in a world that’s never dark. Even in less-well-lit spaces, cities’ myriad lights are reflected back upon them. One rarely sees the stars; one becomes accustomed to neon and fluorescent and LEDs. In some places in our cities, indeed, the night can seem as bright as the day.
The first time I was in North Africa and spent the smallest of time in the Sahara, I realized the differences in meaning night takes on there. In the desert, darkness is real, complete. If there is a moon shining—barely remarked upon if it’s ever noticed in the city—it transforms the landscape; if there is not, the stars are pinpricks of brightness, cold and light-years away, uncaring.
We who live in towns and cities and villages have one concept of darkness and night; those who live in deserts and forests and plains have another one altogether.
No matter where we live today, our experience of the night differs significantly from what our ancestors—who lived roughly half their lives in the dark—experienced. That didn’t change until humans began to gain control over fire use; from that point on, most people had access to some form of “artificial” light—and we began our persistent efforts to light up the night. The more light, the better.
Even people who have lived relatively recently—those with candles, oil lamps, and early electricity—were far more familiar with darkness than we are today. Their nocturnal world simply wasn’t as bright as ours.
So why has it been so important to us to light up the dark? There are many reasons, but the most primal has to do with fear and safety. Darkness is often seen as synonymous with evil; we speak of someone having a “dark side” or “dark thoughts,” and even those of us who live in brightly lit cities are quick to draw the curtains at night.
One of the words used in Scripture to refer to the night is tsalmavet, which can be translated as “deadly darkness.” It’s easy to see why. Darkness and night belong to predators. Out in the wild, night-time eating is risky business. Stepping out to grab a bite raises an animal’s chances of becoming another animal’s meal. Encoded somewhere in our DNA, in our collective unconscious, is the memory of that being our lot as well.
This deep, deadly darkness that is so frightening to us—frightening enough that we cling to the meager comforts of porch lights, lamps lit in empty rooms, flashlights by our bedsides—is how the prophet Jeremiah describes Israel’s forty years in exile; he uses that same word, tsalmavet.
Tsalmavet. Deadly darkness. The darkness of danger, the darkness of being lost, of wandering, of fear. The darkness of being far from home, from loved ones, from God. Of living in danger, with potential predators on every side. It’s what we all fear. And it’s pretty inevitable that, at some point, we will experience it.
In this Lenten series, we’re considering the experience of real-life shepherds… and of real-life sheep. It’s not a metaphor; it’s how many people all over the world, even today, manage to live. In Biblical times, in more agrarian cultures, there were a great many shepherds keeping their own sheep, the sheep that would feed and clothe their families, just as there are still in many parts of the world individual shepherds watching over flocks small and large. If we who live in modern communities are quick to close the curtains of our windows against the night, consider those whose lives depend upon getting their sheep safely through the hours of darkness, of tsalmavet.
Perhaps we can take a few minutes now to try and enter into this experience. Why? Because it is, arguably, the most essential experience of our Christian lives. Jesus, we are told, is the good shepherd, the one who knows his sheep, the one who gives his life so his sheep might live. The Shepherd psalm reminds us that even if we walk through the valley of tsalmavet, we don’t need to be afraid, because God is with us: he is our shepherd. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is central to our identity.
So sit comfortably, and let your thoughts go. Wherever you are sitting, feel the room, the furniture, the context dissolve around you. You’re sitting, instead, on a hillside, surrounded by a flock of sheep. You know them all; some give you the wool you use to make clothing for your family; others will provide your family with meals. Every day, every night, you spend with them. One of the sheep has a squint; another always comes and butts your shoulder playfully. When there are lambs, they fill the air with their anxious cries, echoed by their mothers.
But the sun is sinking in the sky; dusk is gathering. Soon it will be dark.
You are only too aware of what the darkness holds. Last year, you lost three young lambs to the coyote packs that roam these hills. More recently, one of the sheep wandered off alone, and while you tracked it down, it had fallen into a gully and broken its neck in the dark. So you are very conscious of the dangers of tsalmavet.
You can feel your pulse quicken, now, as you try and herd them all into the stone enclosure where they will spend the night. It helps you keep them safe—at least they cannot wander off!—but they’re being difficult tonight, and it takes longer than usual to get them all headed in the right direction. They aren’t cooperating very much; they don’t know what you’re doing is for their safety.
You find yourself glancing over your shoulder, nervously, the shadows lengthening all around you, wondering if you’ll catch a glimpse of a predator lurking, waiting for that moment of inattention to seize an errant lamb. Until finally, with a sigh of relief, you get them all into the enclosure; you double-count, just to make sure. They are all there; your sheep are safe.
The darkness is closing in now, and you stretch out across the enclosure entrance, try to make yourself comfortable. Perhaps you’ve brought something to eat and drink. You settle in; this is where you’ll be spending all the hours of tsalmavet, this night and every night. Because of you, no sheep will escape, and any predator will have to go through you to get to your flock.
You’re ready for it to kill you first. It’s part of the bargain. You protect your sheep, not until it gets difficult, not until it gets dangerous, but no matter what.
Imagine that responsibility! There are no days off. There’s no calling in sick, or taking a vacation, or thinking that just this once you’d like to get a decent sleep yourself. And yet you do it willingly, lovingly even, because your care for this flock is everything to you. You’ve come to cherish them all, every one.
The night is long, and cold. It’s filled with unexplained noises, cries of pain, the palpation of life and death, and more than once during this night you are afraid. You are tired and cold and the dawn seems very far away indeed.
And then it comes… just a whisper of light, a hint really, the eastern sky not quite as dark as it was. Gradually the light increases, the clouds turning searing colors of pink and purple, until the sun breaks free of the horizon and you can stand up, stretch your tight and tired muscles, and lead your flock out to the hillside again.
The world has gone from darkness to light, from fear to calm. “For all of you,” wrote St. Paul to the church at Thessalonica, “are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness” (I Thess.5:5).
In his wonderful book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak reminds us that tsalmavet is not only an external darkness, that it can sit within us as well. St. John of the Cross was familiar with tsalmavet. So was Job. So was Jesus, in the Garden at Gethsemane. “These shadows,” writes Laniak, “come at unplanned and awkward times (…) Just when we need to show enthusiasm for a vision. Just when we thought we could enjoy the status quo. When we least expect it, the lights go out. And our faith, the only fire in the soul’s night, barely smoulders. As we remember those segments of our journey that have been covered in deep shadows, can we now see some evidence of the Shepherd’s presence? How do we respond to others who feel destabilized in a dark spiritual wilderness?” (p.173)
Can you walk in the light this Lent? Can you feel the presence of the Shepherd who watches over you, this night and every night, making sure that nothing will harm you?