I sit in near darkness. The lights are turned off as I gaze at the night sky outside. The windows are open, but all is quiet; the silence broken only by the forbidding sound of an owl somewhere in the distance. Through the pines and the still leaf-covered aspens, I see the moon. It’s bright, pale light swirls kaleidoscopically on the floor as tree branches sway gently in a light breeze.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”
The line from Robert Frost’s poem doesn’t enter my mind at the time. Only later, as the images linger in my memory does the phrase seem apt. The scene of a dark forest, lit only by the glow of a rising moon, feels as though it could be found in any number of horror scenes. Yet despite the haunting stillness the moment captivates me. I long to remain by the window. Robert Frost seems to have understood, his desire to remain in the woods punctuated by the lines that follows: “But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep”. There is indeed something lovely about the dark, deep woods I reside in.
I used to think the haunting feel of the woods at night was a result of the presence of sin in the world. My belief seemed bolstered by the presence of coyotes with their eerie cries and their determined chases as they swiftly pursued their prey. But as I reflect on that evocative memory I realize that not all hauntings are negative. As the Spirit of God hovered “over the surface of the waters” in the book of Genesis, I realize that there is also a presence that hovers over the deep, dark woods that surround me. It too is a haunting, but one that beautifies and makes all within its silver gaze appear lovely, even the desolate hoot of an owl.
God’s presence haunted, or better yet, enchanted, the creation of all things. I find it also haunts/enchants the crux of the Christian faith: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of Luke we read, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three, because the sun’s light failed. The curtain of the sanctuary was split down the middle. And Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit.’ Saying this, He breathed His last” (Luke 23:44-46).
Similar to the feeling I encounter in my woods-encircled room, I feel the same when I read this passage. It both haunts and enchants me at the same time. Jesus’s death and the dimming of the sun testifies to the darkness of the moment. The deserted cry of Jesus on the cross echoes the mournful cry of the owl (see The Message translation of Micah 1:8). But the tearing of the curtain that separated the Holy of holies (the only part of the temple where God’s presence resided) is lovely. It signified that God’s presence could now be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. Like the moon that casts a silver glow over all, so the parted curtain reflects the presence of God who now shines His enchanting light on all who receive it.
And though it is not as immediately obvious, this moment is deep. At least one person who witnessed Jesus’ death understood this. “When the centurion saw what happened, he began to glorify God, saying, ‘This man really was righteous!’ (Luke 23:47). The centurion, no doubt a man of honor, duty, and loyalty, saw the deep sacrifice of Christ and opened up to it. As arcane and opaque as the woods are, so too was the depth of Christ’s obedience to the Father and His love for us. It is unfathomable and inexhaustible.
What the centurion witnessed in Christ’s death, what Robert Frost described, and what I experience in a God-haunted, God-enchanted forest all point to the same reality: the mystery of the cross. His sacrifice on the cross was as lovely as the glow of a moon, as dark as the plaintive cry of an owl, and as deep as an impenetrable forest. May you walk in the path of the centurion and open your heart to the death of Christ on the cross: an event that was as lovely as it was dark and deep.