17 December 2012

Awake & Astonished: III. The Birth of Dawn - An Advent Series

Isaiah 60:1-5; Revelation 22:16-17, 20; John 1: 1-5

Third Sunday of Advent/ 16th December 2012

Last week we looked at texts that spoke of darkness and shadow, of God’s light shining in the darkness.  Last week I asked us to sit with the darkness, embrace it; see what it can teach us. A tall order, I know; tougher today after this past week with the shooting at a mall outside Portland, Oregon, and the horrific shooting on Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut. Isaiah’s text speaks to such a moment, moments when darkness covers the people.  That’s how it felt on Friday and maybe today, overcome by a pall of darkness and grief in this season of light, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking pain, anger, sorrow for those innocents, their parents, for the teachers, the people of that community, for the family of the gunman, for the first responders, counselors, rabbis, priests, ministers.

            What does one say?  Where is God? What right to we have to talk about light and hope?  For some, but not for everyone, not for all.

            It’s not all darkness, to be sure.  But sometimes when we’re in dark places it’s exceptionally difficult to find the light and so we must wait and hope.  We have to take the darkness seriously or else we become its victims.  For the light to shine in the darkness, maybe especially there, we have to hope and wait and earnestly look for it.  Our waiting is not in vain.  Scripture has shown us time and again, in the darkness a new light will dawn.  That’s what Isaiah held out for Israel.  Last week, we heard Zechariah say, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).  At the end of Revelation we find Jesus saying, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16).  And in John’s Gospel we have some of the most profound verses in the Bible, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5).  He is “the true light, which enlightens everyone,” who has come into the world (Jn. 1:9).

            In this sense, Jesus is like the sun that rises in the East, who grants us a new day. The Latin word for “dawn,” for the rising, or morning, sun, is oriens; the name given to the direction from which it rises:  the East, or the Orient.  We are "oriented" when we face or point toward the East.  The noun oriens is formed on the verb orior: meaning rise or become visible.  By extension, the verb means "growing" or "springing forth," "origination,” coming into being and birth.[1]

When Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) wrote the carol “People, Look East” (which we studied this morning in adult education and sang in worship), she drew upon these texts that refer to Jesus as the birth of dawn, a new day springs forth and grows in him and us.[2]  In her hymn, “Morning Has Broken,” she’s saying something similar.

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

            “People, Look East” is the perfect carol for Advent because it orients us toward the future.  Advent prepares us for the coming of Christmas, but Advent also calls us to prepare for Christ’s second advent, for his return.  The early church sang, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come” (Rev. 22:20).  We can’t look to the past or even the present to grant us what we need most; we live with a spirit of anticipation.  Despite what the Mayan calendar says or doesn’t say about the end of the world this Friday (I sincerely doubt that will happened), the Christian with confidence is oriented toward the future; we wait for God to act in surprising and life-giving ways – like shining in the darkness.  Our trust, our hope is not built upon what we can do, but in the “new thing” coming from Jesus who is our “new day.”  To not focus on the “new thing,” the “new day,” the “new dawn,” who is Christ means, at some level, from a Christian perspective, to be disoriented, it means we have lost our direction, it means we have lost our way.  There’s so much in our society that is disoriented, that has lost its way.  I don’t want to dwell there.

            Instead, for us in Advent, here this morning singing carols of joy and hope, perhaps we will come away with a renewed sense of meaning about who Jesus was and is and the love of God he came show.  The birth of Christ shows us, definitively, that God has this uncanny ability and delight in making all things new, extending new horizons of hope and meaning where there’s only despair and darkness, of breaking forth light in the night and dazzling us with the dawn. 

            Throughout this week a musical piece was floating around my head, “Born On a Day.”  It was written by Philip Lawson (b.1957) and popularized by The King’s Singers in the 1980s.  It has a poignant text and beautiful melody.  I heard it yesterday on the radio and heard it again just this morning driving to the church. Here is our hope.

You are the new day.
Meekness, love, humility,
Come down to us this day:
Christ, your birth has proved to me
You are the new day.

Quiet in a stall you lie,
Angels watching in the sky
Whisper to you from on high:
'You are the new day.'

When our life is darkest night,
Hope has burned away,
Love, your ray of guiding light,
Show us the new day.

Love of all things great and small,
Leaving none, embracing all,
Fold around me where I fall,
Bring in the new day.

This new day will be a turning point
For every one,
If we let the Christ-child in,
And reach for the new day.

Christ the Way, the Truth, the Life,
Healing sadness, ending strife,
You we welcome, Lord of Life.
Born on a new day,
You are the new day.[3]

[1] Kathleen Martin, ed., The Book of Symbols:  Reflected on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archeytpal Symbolism (Taschen), 90.
[2] "People, Look East" was first published as "Carol of Advent" in Part 3 of "Modern Texts Written for or Adapted to Traditional Tunes" in The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928. Farjeon, a native of London, was a devout Catholic who viewed her faith as "a progression toward which her spiritual life moved rather than a conversion experience." (The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, p. 323) She achieved acclaim as an author of children's nursery rhymes and singing games, and is best remembered for her poem "Morning Has Broken." The tune, BESANÇON, an ancient carol, first appeared in Christmas Carols New and Old, 1871, as the setting for "Shepherds, Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep," and was titled CHANTONS, BARGIÉS, NOUÉ, NOUÉ.  See also Ian Bradley, ed., The Penguin Book of Carols (Penguin Books, 1999).
[3]John Rutter’s arrangement of the piece may be found here.

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