O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Amen
That prayer is from around the fourth century and it was and is traditionally prayed on December 21st. It is part of a series of daily prayers the week of Advent, each one beginning with a title for Jesus, such as Key of David, branch of Jesse, and Emanuel, God with us. This one in particular begins with O dawn of the east, or in other words, O bright morning star. It is a hopeful prayer that we hear as we move deeper into the darkness of winter.
We typically think of the week leading up to Christmas as one filled with joyous celebration and preparation. There are parties to attend and prepare for, gifts to give and receive, travel plans and seeing those we love and miss and all that wonderful Christmas music everywhere you go. Now, I am certainly not an Advent Nazi. I do not make a bright line between music for Advent and music for Christmas as though they were oil and water and cannot be mixed (we’ve even sung a Christmas carol or two already this Advent!) however, you just don’t get to sing Silent Night, Joy to the Word and O Come All Ye Faithful all year long. We don’t get to hear The First Noel, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear and all the other familiar carols on a regular basis. They are reserved for this season. And rightly so. Who wants to sing Star of Wonder Star of Night, Star with Royal Beauty Bright in the middle of August?
Yes, it is a joyous time. A special time. A Happy Time.
Sometimes, it is not a happy time. Many people have a very difficult time with Christmas. Broken families, the loss or suffering of ones we love, financial struggles, loneliness or the general state of uncertainty in which we can sometimes find ourselves can all be reasons for not quite so much joy to our personal worlds. Sometimes the forty fifth chorus of Jingle Bells jangling in our ears can be like tiny pricks in our heart.
I remember one particularly hectic Christmas season when I still worked in retail. The camera store where I was a sales person was crammed with people; all irritated, all frustrated, all JUST FULL OF JOY, DAMN IT! There was a little child in there, probably about six or so, who had just had all he could take for one day. He sat down in the middle of the floor, right in the middle of all those people, and started crying. Crying at the top of his lungs.
For just a moment I was so envious of him.
Now sweetie, his mother said in a less than patient voice, you can’t cry at Christmas. Baby Jesus doesn’t like it when you cry.
I thought to myself, wait a minute…it isn’t Jesus who warns us not to pout or cry, it’s Santa Claus, isn’t it?
The truth is Jesus may indeed not want us to be sad. In fact, I am pretty sure of that truth. After all he does say that he will wipe away every tear when he comes again and that there will be no more crying or pain. So, in that sense, yes I guess Baby Jesus doesn’t like it when we cry. Jesus does not like for the world to be in such a state of pain. But often times, the reality of that pain is as unmistakable and unignorable as a child crying at the top of his lungs in a shopping mall.
That is a truth about us, our human pain and sadness, that Jesus knows well. It is no coincidence that the symbols of advent are stars, candles and lights; symbols we often associate, even apart from the church, with hope. The people of God have always encountered times, both as a group and as individuals, when it seemed that darkness was their only companion. Yet we are given these images of hope, symbols of God’s continual presence with us, even and especially during the darkest times.
Here are just a few of the words the bible gives us about God’s answer to that darkness.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. Isaiah 9:2
… the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. Malachi 4:2
You my child shall be called the prophet of the most high. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. To bring his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the ways of peace. Luke 1. Zachariah’s song to his son, John. The one who would become John the Baptizer.
God comes to us when we are sitting in the middle of chaos and confusion and tears and darkness. He does not wait, like a cosmic Santa Clause, for us to ‘be good’ and ‘dry our tears’ before he shows up. He comes to us whether we sing Christmas carols or shed tears. He comes to us whether we have tons of packages under a Christmas tree or if we have nothing to give. He comes to us whether we have loving families all around us or if we are all alone. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, as sure as there are stars in the sky. Jesus does come.
O dawn of the east-o bright morning star, light eternal and blazing sun of justice, come and give light to all of us who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Be the light dawning on the world. Amen