Oh Night Divine

Years ago, one of my favorite Rainer Maria Rilke poems gave me a new perspective on the night, and I’m reminded of this at Christmas time whenever we sing “Oh Holy Night,” one of the most beautiful songs that has ever entered my ear. Let me provide the poem first and then explain what I mean.

You, darkness, of whom I am born—

 

I love you more than the flame

that limits the world

to the circle it illumines

and excludes all the rest.

 

But the dark embraces everything:

shapes and shadows, creatures and me,

people, nations—just as they are.

 

It lets me imagine

a great presence stirring beside me.

 

I believe in the night.[1]

Now, I should say that I first read this poem before I had any theological training, so my assessment of its truth value has changed over the years, but its “shaping effect” on me lies in its reversal of common perception. We always associate light with love and life, darkness with evil and death. Scripture, of course, is laced with imagery highlighting the contrast between light and darkness, almost always attaching moral degradation or death to the latter (e.g., 2 Sam 22:29; Job 10:21; 17:13; 30:26; Ps 18:28; 23:4; 107:10; 112:4; Prov 4:19; Eccl 2:13; Isa 9:2; Lam 3:6; Matt 6:23; 8:12; 22:13; Luke 11:35; 22:53; John 1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 12:35; Rom 2:19; 13:12; 2 Cor 6:14; Eph 5:8, 11; 1 Thess 5:5; 1 Pet 2:9; 1 John 1:5, 6; 2:9, 11; and others). We must never ignore or downgrade that imagery for the sake of poetic license.

But here is where I found Rilke to be so helpful: His words draw our attention to the night as the arena or environment of faith. The last line, “I believe in the night,” can be read in several ways, but I have always understood the preposition “in” to be a dative of sphere, if you will. Belief is what happens in the realm of the night. In other words, I never read this poem as meaning that Rilke held the night to be an object of faith. Perhaps he did mean that, and if he did, then I would have additional questions to pose. For instance, if he is saying that night is the object of his belief, how can this be possible given the fact that things or phenomena cannot respond to our faith? The relationship between faith-holder and faith-receiver would be one-sided, and therefore meaningless. Belief must have a personal being as its object: one who responds. Otherwise belief is nothing more than imagined pleasantry.

The more I think of it, the more I wonder if this really was what Rilke meant. Given the context of the poem, he does seem to praise the darkness in way that seems dangerous. We can learn to appreciate darkness (as I will argue momentarily), but that is not the same as loving the darkness, especially “more than the flame.” If this is how Rilke saw things—if he held night to be an object of faith—then I suspect that he was drawn to such faith because of its apparent inclusivity. Darkness does not discern; it envelops all (“the dark embraces everything”). This contrasts with the light, which chooses. When light illumines, it simultaneously selects and excludes. It separates. Perhaps Rilke was responding negatively to that truth. Maybe his sinful self felt more welcomed by the darkness, which did not exclude him or judge the depths of his heart.

If that was Rilke’s approach, then I certainly would take issue with it, but there is an apologetic implication here. In my own life, I went through a period of rebellion. During that time, I was often more readily accepted by peers who were also off the beaten path of Christian faith (to put it mildly). These people did not judge me for my rebellion. In fact, they probably did not even consider my behavior rebellious. They welcomed me. Darkness loves company.

It was also during that time that I became very aware of the exclusivity of Christian truth. I often would clash with Christian friends over long held beliefs. As I think back on it, I seem to have taken issue with the choosing or separating effect of the light. No doubt, light does limit “the world to the circle it illumines and excludes all the rest.” I would have been more troubled at that time if I had known that it was not merely the light of truth that separates, but God himself. Every Christian must, sooner or later, come to grips with the fact that God is a God who chooses. He is one who separates. In fact, he is the one who first separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:4; cf. Job 26:10). God is his own light. That is why there was light before the stars, sun, and moon were manifested by his divine speech. The light that is God is what separated the Creator from his creation. People such as my old rebellious self, who took issue with the exclusivity of Christianity, would do better to get down to foundation: It is not merely Christianity that is exclusive, that chooses, that separates—it is God himself. The miracle of Christianity is that this God who chooses not only chose to covenantally relate to his creation but also to redeem it when it fell away from him. The biblical God is incomprehensible in part because he has chosen to do what he did not need to do, both in creating and in redeeming.

Getting back to Rilke, I believe it makes the most theological sense to say, “I believe during the night.” That is how I have always read the poem. Night in this sense is the environment in which belief takes shape. Night is the arena for the light of faith. Taken this way, “Oh Holy Night” has a special power beneath the melody and the language. It is a power that pulses from the undeniable truth that there is never anything outside of God’s choosing providence. During the cold night some two thousand years ago, when hope seemed almost snuffed out, God chose. He chose to have his Son be born in the darkness, to emerge as the light that would soon engulf the world. That night, perhaps more than any other night in human history, shined brighter than any day ever could. The night of Christ’s birth was perhaps God’s way of revealing once more that even the darkness is as light to him (Ps 139:12). It is God himself, who is light, that decides when and where his redemptive providence will shine, and it often pierces the darkness in unlikely places—as it did in a countryside stable under the light of the stars.

That, in short, is what impressed me with Rilke’s poem: He turned the night into something we rarely consider it to be: an opportunity for light.

This season, as you sing “Oh Holy Night,” remember that one phrase, “Oh night divine.” That night, my brothers and sisters, was divine. And every night since then has been an echo of the light of God that meets us in our darkness.

Pierce Taylor Hibbs is a graduate of Westminster Seminary (MAR, 2010). He has served at the Center for Theological Writing for seven years and has extensive experience teaching theological writing. He specializes in teaching English language skills to speakers of other languages, serving as the lead instructor for the Theological English portion of Mastering Theological English and as a lecturer in Advanced Theological Writing.


[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead, 2005), 63.

 

Pierce Hibbs

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