SERMON: The Hungering Dark, by Frederick Buechner

The Hungering Dark Frederick Buechner

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at thy presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make thy name known to thy adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at thy presence!
There is no one that calls upon thy name,
that bestirs himself to take hold of thee;
for thou hast hid thy face from us,
and has delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.
Isaiah 64:1-2, 7


And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your hands, because your redemption is drawing near.  — Luke 21:25-28

About twenty years ago I was in Rome at Christmastime, and on Christmas Eve I went to Saint Peter’s to see the Pope celebrate mass.  It happened also to be the end of Holy Year, and there were thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe who started arriving hours ahead of when the mass was supposed to begin so that they would be sure to find a good place to watch from, and it was not long before the whole enormous church was filled.  I am sure that we did not look like a particularly religious crowd.  We were milling around, thousands of us, elbowing each other out of the way to get as near as possible to the papal altar with its huge canopy of gilded bronze and to the aisle that was roped off for the Pope to come down.  Some had brought food to sustain them through the long wait, and every once in a while singing would break out like brush fire — “Adeste Fidelis” and “Heilige Nacht.”  I remember especially because everybody seemed to know the Latin words to one and the German words to the other — and the singing would billow up into the great Michelangelo dome and then fade away until somebody somewhere started it up again.  Whatever sense anybody might have had of its being a holy time and a holy place was swallowed up by the sheer spectacle of it — the countless voices and candles, and the marble faces of saints and apostles, and the hiss and shuffle of feet on the acres of mosaic.

Then finally, after several hours of waiting, there was suddenly a hush, and way off in the flickering distance I could see that the Swiss Guard had entered with the golden throne on their shoulders, and the crowds pressed in toward the aisle, and in a burst of cheering the procession began to work its slow way forward.

What I remember most clearly, of course, if the Pope himself, Pius XII as he was then.  In all that Renaissance of splendor with the Swiss Guard in their scarlet and gold, the pope himself was vested in plainest white with only a white skullcap on the back of his head.  I can see his face as he was carried by me on his throne — that lean, ascetic face, gray-skinned, with the high-bridged beak of a nose, his glasses glittering in the candlelight. And as he passed by me he was leaning slightly forward and peering into the crowd with extraordinary intensity.

Through the thick lenses of his glasses his eyes were larger than life, and he peered into my face and into all the faces around me and behind me with a look so keen and so charged that I could not escape the feeling that he must be looking for someone in particular.  He was not a potentate nodding and smiling to acknowledge the enthusiasm of the multitudes.  He was a man whose face seemed gray with waiting, whose eyes seemed huge and exhausted with searching, for someone, some one, who he thought might be there that night or any night, anywhere, but whom he had never found, and yet he kept looking.  Face after face he searched for the face that he knew he would know — was it this one? was it this one? or this one? — and then he passed on out of my sight.  It was a powerful moment for me, a moment that many other things have crystallized about since, and I have felt that I knew whom he was looking for.  I felt that anyone else who was really watching must also have known.

And the cry of Isaiah, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would quake at thy presence. . . that the nations might tremble at thy presence!. . . There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.”

In one sense, of course, the face was not hidden, and as the old Pope surely knew, the one he was looking for so hard was at that very moment crouched in some doorway against the night or leading home some raging Roman drunk or waiting for the mass to be over so he could come in with his pail and his mop to start cleaning up that holy mess.  The old Pope surely knew that the one he was looking for was all around him there in Saint Peter’s.  The face that he was looking for was visible, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night mostly, perhaps, because it was the biggest show in Rome just then and did not cost a cent but also because we were looking for the same one he was looking for, even though, as Isaiah said, there were few of us with wit enough to call upon his name.  The one we were looking for was there then as he is here now because he haunts the world, and as the years have gone by since that Christmas Eve, I think he has come to haunt us more and more until there is scarcely a place any longer where, recognized or unrecognized, his ghost has not ben seen.  It may well be a post-Christian age that we living in, but I cannot think of an age that in its own way has looked with more wistfulness and fervor toward the ghost at least of Christ.

God knows we are a long way from the brotherhood of man, and any theory that little by little we are approaching the brotherhood of man has to reckon that it was out of the Germany of Goethe and Brahms and Tillich that Dachau and Belsen came and that it is out of our own culture that the weapons of doom have come and the burning children.  Yet more and more, I think, although we continue to destroy each other, we find it harder to hate each other.

Maybe it is because we have seen too much, literally seen too much, with all the ugliness and pain of our destroying flickering away on the blue screens across the land — the bombings and the riots, the nightmare in Dallas, the funeral in Atlanta.  Maybe it is because having no cause holy enough to die for means also having no cause holy enough to hate for.  But also I think that is because as men we have tried it so long our own grim way that maybe we are readier than we have ever been before to try it the way that is Christ’s — whether we call upon his name or not.

Out there beyond this world there are more worlds and beyond them more worlds still, and maybe on none of them is there anything that we would call life, only barrenness, emptiness, silence.  But here in this world nothing is worth the crippling and grieving of life.  We begin to see that, positively, maybe everything glad and human and true and with any beauty in it depends on cherishing life, on breathing more life into this life that we are.  However uncertainly that way I cannot believe that it is just fear of the bomb that has kept us as long as this from a third world war, or that it is just prudence and political pressure that slowly and painfully move the races and the nations to where they can at least begin to hear all the guilt and fear that have kept them apart for so long.  I cannot believe that it is just a fad that young men in beards and sandals refuse in the name of love to bear arms or that it is entirely a joke that, with Allen Ginsberg and Humphrey Bogart, Jesus of Nazareth is postered on undergraduate walls.  Call is what you will, I believe that something is stirring in the hearts of men to which the very turbulence of our times bears witness.  It is as if the moral and spiritual struggle that has always gone on privately in the consciences of the conscientious has exploded into the open with force enough to shake history itself no less than our private inner histories.

Maybe it will shake us to pieces, maybe it has come too late, but at least I believe that there are many in the world who have learned what I for one simply did not know twenty years ago in Rome: that wherever you look beneath another’s face to his deepest needs to be known and healed, you have seen the Christ in him; that wherever you have looked to the deepest needs beneath your own face — among them the need to know and to heal — you have seen the Christ in yourself.  And if this is what we have seen, then we have seen much, and if this is what the old Pope found as he was carried through the shadow and shimmer of his church, then he found much.  Except that I have the feeling that he was looking for more, that in the teeming mystery of that place he was looking not just for the Christ in men but for the Christ himself, the one who promised that the son of man would come again in a cloud with power and great glory.

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars,” he said, “and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding,” and then, at just such a time, we are tempted to say, as our own time, “look up and raise your heads,” he said, “because your redemption is drawing near.”  And the words of Jesus are mild compared with the words of a later generation.  The Son of Man with face and hair as white as snow and eyes of fire, the two-edged sword issuing from his mouth.  The last great battle with the armies of heaven arrayed in white linen, and the beast thrown into the lake of fire so that the judgment can take place and the thousand years of peace.  Then the heavenly city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband, and the great voice saying, “Behold. . . .”  The New Testament ends, of course, with the words, “Come Lord Jesus,” come again, come back and inaugurate these mighty works, and I always remember a sign that I used to pass by in Spanish-speaking East Harlem that said simply, “Pronto viene, Jesus Cristo.”

Surely there is no part of New Testament faith more alien to our age than this doctrine of a second coming, this dream of holiness returning in majesty to a world where for centuries holiness has shone no brighter than in the lines of a certain kind of suffering on faces like yours and mine.  Partly, I suppose, it is alien because of the grotesque, Hebraic images it is clothes in.  Partly too, I suppose, it is alien to us because we have come to associate it so closely with the lunatic fringe — the millennial sects climbing to the tops of hills in their white robes to wait for the end of the world that never comes, knocking at the backdoor to hand out their tracts and ask if we have been washed in the blood of the lamb.

But beneath the language that they are written in and the cranks that they have produced, if cranks they are, I suspect that what our age finds most alien in these prophecies of a second coming, a final judgment and redemption of the world, is their passionate hopefulness.  “Faith, hope, love,” Paul wrote, “these three — and the greatest of these is love,” and yes, love.  We understand at last something about love.  Even as nations we have come to understand at last something about love, at least as a practical necessity, a final expedient, if nothing else.  We understand a little that if we do not feed the hungry and clothe the naked of the world, if as nations, as races, we do not join forces against war and disease and poverty in something that looks at least like love, then the world is doomed.  God knows we are not very good at it, and we may still blow ourselves sky high before we are all through, but at least maybe we have begun as a civilization to see what it is all about.  And just because we have seen it, if only through a glass, darkly, just because maybe love is not so hard to sell the world as once it was, perhaps Paul would have written for us: “Love, yes, of course, love.  But for you and your time, the greatest of these if hope because now it is hope that is hardest and rarest among men.”

We have our hopes of course.  This election year especially, jaded as you get after a while, the hope that out of all these faces that we come to know like the faces of importunate friends there will emerge a face to trust.  The hope that if the lives of a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, cannot transform our hearts, then maybe at least their deaths will break our hearts, break them enough to let a little of their humanity in.  The hope that even if real peace does not come to the world, at least the worst of the killing will stop.  The hope that as individuals, that you are you and me as me, will somehow win at least a stalemate against the inertias, the lusts, the muffled cruelties and deceits that we do battle with, all of us, all the time.  The hope that by some chance today I will see a friend, that by some grace today I will be a friend.  These familiar old hopes.  No one of them is enough to get us out of bed in the morning but maybe together they are, must be, because we do get out of bed in the morning, we survive the night.

There is a Hebrew word for hope, gāwāh, whose root means to twist, to twine, and it is a word that seems to fit our brand of hoping well.  The possibility that this good thing will happen and that that bad thing will not happen, a hundred little strands of hope that we twist together to make a cable of hope so much only for what it is reasonable to hope for out of the various human possibilities before us that even if we were to play a child’s game and ask what do we hope for most in all the world, I suspect that our most extravagant answers would not be very extravagant.  And this is the risk becoming the ones who wait, helpless and irrelevant in their white robes for a deliverance that never comes.  To hope for more than the possible is a kind of madness.

For people like us, the reasonably thoughtful, reasonably reasonable and realistic people like us, this apocalyptic hope for the more than possible is too hopeful.  We cannot hope such a fantastic hope any more, at least not quite, not often.  It is dead for us, and we have tried to fill the empty place it left with smaller, saner hopes that the worst possibilities will never happen and that a few of the better possibilities may happen yet.  And all these hopes twisted together do make hope enough to live by, hope enough to see a little way into the darkness by.  But the empty place where the great hope used to be is mostly empty still, and the darkness hungers still for the great light that has gone out, the crazy dream of holiness coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for us.

We cannot hope that hope any more because it is too fantastic for us, but maybe if in some dim, vestigial way we are Christians enough still to believe in mystery, maybe if beneath all our sad wisdom there is some little gibbering of madness left, then maybe we are called to be in some measure fantastic ourselves, to say at least maybe to the possibility of the impossible.  When Jesus says that even as the world writhes in what may well be its final agony, we must raise our heads and look up because our redemption is near, maybe we are called upon to say not yes, because yes is too much for us, but to say maybe, because maybe is the most that hope can ever say.  Maybe it will come, come again, come pronto.  Pronto viene, Jesus Cristo.

Where do they come from, the Christs, the Buddhas?  The villains we can always explain by the tragic conditions that produced them — the Hitlers, the Oswalds — but the births of the holy ones are in a way always miraculous births, and when they come, they move like strangers through the world.  History does not produce holiness, I think.  Saints do not evolve.  If we cannot believe in God as a noun, maybe we can still believe in God as a verb.  And the verb that God is, is transitive, it takes an object, and the object of the verb that God is, is the world.  To love, to judge, to heal, to give Christs to.  The world.  The thousand thousand worlds.

Certainly a Christian must speak to the world in the language of the world.  He must make the noblest causes of the world his causes ad fight for justice and peace with the world’s weapons — with Xerox machines and demonstrations and social action.  He must reach out in something like love to what he can see of Christ in every man.  But I think he must also be willing to be fantastic, or fantastic in other ways too, because at its heart religious faith is fantastic.  Because Christ himself was fantastic with his hair every whichway and smelling of fish and looking probably a lot more like Groucho Marx than like Billy Budd as he stood there with his ugly death already thick as flies about him and said to raise our heads, raise our heads for Christ’s sake, because our redemption is near.

Maybe holiness will come again.  Maybe not as the Son of Man with eyes of fire and a two-edged sword in his mouth, but as a child who had maybe already been born into our world and beneath whose face the face of Christ is at this moment starting to burn through like the moon through clouds.  Or if even that is too supernatural for us, maybe it will come in majesty from some other world because we have begun to take seriously the fantastic thought that maybe we are not alone in the universe.

Who knows what will happen?  Except that in a world without God, in a way we do know.  In a world without God we know at least that the thing that will happen will be a human thing, a thing no better and no worse than the most that humanity itself can be.  But in a world with God, we can never know what will happen — maybe that is the most that the second coming can mean for our time — because the thing that happens then is God’s thing, and that is to say a new and unimaginable and holy thing that humanity can guess at only in its wildest dreams.  In a world with God, we come together in a church to celebrate, among other things, a mystery and to learn from, among other things our ancient and discredited dreams.

It is madness to hope such a hope in our grim and sober times, madness to peer beyond the possibilities of history for the impossibilities of God.  And there was madness among other things in the face of the old Pope that gaudy night with Hitler’s Jews on his conscience maybe and whatever he died of already on its way to killing him.  There was anxiety in his face, if I read it right, and weariness, and longing, longing. And to this extent his face was like your face and my face, and I would have had no cause to remember it so long.  But there was also madness in that old man’s face, I think.  Like a monkey, his eyes were too big, too alive, too human for his face.  And it is the madness that had haunted me through the years.  Madness because I suspect that he hoped that Christ himself had come back that night as more than just the deepest humanness of every man’s humanity, that Impossibility itself stood there resplendent in that impossible place.

He was not there, he had not come back, and as far as I know he has not come back yet.  It is fantastic, of course, to think that he might, but that should not bother too much the likes of us.  It is fantastic enough just that preachers should stand up in their black gowns making fools of themselves when they could be home reading the papers where only their children need know they are fools.  It is fantastic that people should listen to them.  It is fantastic that in a world like ours there should be something in us still that says at least maybe, maybe, to the fantastic possibility of God at all.

So in Christ’s name, I commend this madness and this fantastic hope that the future belongs to God no less than the past, that in some way we cannot imagine holiness will return to our world.  I know of no time when the world has been riper for its return, when the dark has been hungrier.  Thy kingdom come. . . we do show forth the Lord’s death till he come. . . and maybe the very madness of our hoping will give him the crazy, golden wings he needs to come on.  I pray that he will come again and that you will make it your prayer.  We need him, God knows.

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’  Amen, Come Lord Jesus!”

Lord Jesus Christ,
Help us not to fall in love with the night that covers us but through the darkness to watch for you as well as to work for you; to dream and hunger in the dark for the light of you.  Help us to know that the madness of God is saner than men and that nothing that God has wrought in this world was ever possible.
Give us back the great hope again that the future is yours, that not even the world can hide you from us forever, that at the end the One who came will come back in power to work joy in us stronger even than death.
Amen.

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1 Comment on SERMON: The Hungering Dark, by Frederick Buechner

  1. “he haunts the world” is such a strange notion for the one who beseeches us to be child-like. As a ghost in the shadows, this notion suggests his grace and goodness “haunts” a world running on self-promotion and conceit. Indeed, his relentless searching and “haunting” makes pale our puny, passing nods to his presence. Out of the Christmas night comes the ghost of grace.

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