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Going dark

Braindead after a recent day at work and stuck in traffic, I turned on the radio to hear former House Intelligence Committee member Jane Harman say, “Among other things, the head of the CIA has to go dark.” 

I enjoy a good spy movie, so I was intrigued by the phrase. Googling it later, I found that “going dark” involves receding into the shadows, a kind of self-effacement (no Tweeting) for the greater good of the Agency. 

“It’s a simple enough concept, going dark,” writes journalist Cory Scarola, “and it’s one that is customary for CIA directors. Because of the clandestine nature of the CIA’s work, it does not behoove the CIA director to appear often in news headlines. Flying below the radar is a crucial component of the job.”

Something about the idea of going dark resonated. In our “Culture of the Big Me,” going dark suggests a road less traveled; a new and needed asceticism; a nobler challenge than amassing more online followers and friends. Going dark seems almost the antithesis of focusing on the next promotion, the fitter body, larger investment portfolio, or bigger home. 

For these first 15 years of marriage and fatherhood, I’ve occasionally run into a dark figure, in the person of St. Joseph. From time to time, he has emerged from the shadows to almost confront me with a question, an intuition — only to recede for months at a time. 

Joseph has been hard to get to know. His sheer absence of words in Scripture is, I find, infuriating. Elusive and stubbornly quiet, Joseph never tweets, never writes columns about family life or blogs about parenting. 

“When we look back on that fatherhood,” says John Cavadini, director of University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life, in a recent talk, ‘Joseph, A Father Rich in Mercy,’ “we see an effacement, rather than a claim; a hiddenness, rather than an assertion; silence and not speech, someone easily overlooked, someone of no particular interest.” 

This is the Joseph I’ve encountered, with “dark” characteristics jarring to today’s logic — when our resumes, claims and assertions are celebrated rather than subjugated to something larger. Joseph points us to a mysterious hiddenness, one that offends our technological demands for immediacy and transparency.   

Rather than Instagramming a photo of the meal he just enjoyed with Mary and Jesus, Joseph opts to go dark. Rather than chart 10 New Year’s resolutions to his “better me” or complain that the Lord didn’t consult him prior to Mary’s conceiving of a Son, Joseph effaces his personal needs in service to the mission communicated to him in, of all manners, a dream

“This makes (Joseph),” Cavadini continues, “the shadow of the eternal Father, whose identity is dark and unknowable because it consists in the complete effacement of identity that is the begetting of the Son, like a supra-cosmic black hole, of which St. Joseph is the visible shadow.” 

Joseph is the “visible shadow” of the eternal Father. He has gone dark, but why? And how might the rest of us — who are not tapped by the president to direct the CIA or by an angel to raise the Son of God — go dark in our busy and hyperconnected lives? 

We find the answer, ironically, in hiddenness. “There is something intrinsically hidden about the Christian life, and we see the form of this revealed in advance in St. Joseph,” Cavadini says. “His life, by its very structure, cannot provide an accounting of itself, without undoing itself.” 

“For you have died,” St. Paul writes, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:1). Mary and Jesus were, Cavadini says, “hidden, as it were, in and by (Joseph’s) paternal love … completely concealed from the prince of this world, to whom love is always and wholly invisible.” 

Many of my 2017 resolutions point not to my hiddenness in Christ but to my visibility in the world.  Maybe more of these resolutions should aim at my decreasing, in order that He may increase. 

Maybe 2017 can be better. Maybe 2017 can be our Year of Effacement: the year we look back on with deep gratitude because we finally made the decision to torch the bridge to our own visibility; the year we joined St. Joseph below the radar and allowed the teeming demands of our own ego to “go dark” in service to the Light. 

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is the bishop’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media.






© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017