People Look East: When Night is Dim

Stars keep the watch when night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim
Shining beyond the frosty weather
Bright as the sun and moon together
People look East and sing today
Love the Star is on the way

Being in the dark is hard. And, we spend a lot of time in it, both literally and metaphorically. Honestly, I think part of the reason why I love the metaphor of light so much (see here, here, and here) and why it’s at the heart of my spirituality and theological lineage is because it feels like I’ve spent so much time walking in the darkness. I don’t just mean my own personal Dark Night of the Soul, but also just so many years when I’ve felt like I’ve been stumbling around, unable to see more than the next step ahead of me, when I haven’t been sure where I’m going or if I’m on the right path, or on any path at all: I’ve been successful in jobs but struggled to make a career; I have a vocation to teach but have struggled to find the right outlet; I feel deeply called to marriage but have struggled to get relationships off the ground; I long for genuine community, but have struggled to find ‘my people’. Of course I am in no way unique in this. Being in the dark like this is in many many ways an apt analogy for the entire human condition.

Because I’ve written so much on the topics of darkness and light, I don’t want to say too much here today. (If you’re interested, please follow the links in the previous paragraph and you’ll get all of my thoughts and reflections on the subject.) But I do want to reflect today on something that can help us in this experience of being in the dark.

As I’ve been meditating on today’s verse of “People Look East,” the carol which has been guiding these midweek Advent reflections, the image that comes to mind is of a dark, foggy night that is nonetheless sitting under open skies. In the moment, on the ground, it’s dark and we can’t see anything around us. But if we were to look up, it would still be dark, but at least we would see the moon to light our way (however dimly) and the stars to orient us. It reminds me the idiom in the Hebrew Bible, “and he lifted his eyes and saw…,” which is used to describe a moment of perception that is spiritual as much as sensory. Lifting our eyes to heaven is a way of shifting perspective. It helps us to see our circumstances in the bigger picture. The “stars keep their watch,” and together in the darkest skies they can illuminate the night with the vast swaths of the Milky Way. The stars are a “vast cloud of witnesses” that remind us that there is light out there and together they can help us to know where we are and to find our way.

The phrasing in that last sentence, of course, comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it is used to describe the Communion of Saints, the faithful who are cheering us on as we “run with perseverance the race set out for us.” And I think its an apt connection to make as we reflect on the image of darkness and light. When we are going through our darkest, most disoriented nights, we can use the constellations of the Saints — our heroes of life and faith — to help us find our way.

For me these lights are arrayed in a few constellations. As I traveled through my earliest days, I oriented myself around the lights of my family: stories of my grandfather, who allowed grief to be transformed into faith; my grandmother who shone with love in the midst of a hard life; my dad, who gave up a promising career to take a big risk for God; and my mom, who intentionally broke harmful generational patterns (at a time before people had that kind of language) to ensure our home was a loving and safe one. In my lost teen years, the binary stars of my friends Tiina and Heather helped me find my way. During a particularly foggy patch in my mid-twenties, new-to-me stars appeared in the Eastern sky: Fr. Alexander Men, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and the bright lights of the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and St. Gregory Palamas. For me, encountering these men was like looking through a spiritual Hubble Telescope; they opened up my eyes to wonders I hadn’t dreamed were possible. And, walking under their light, I came to see other lights in their sky that shone just as beautifully: Saints like Olga, Maria, Elizabeth, and Mary, whose examples inspired me to keep walking.

The more accustomed I became to looking up, the brighter the starlight seemed to be.

Even in the darkest nights of my Dark Night, I could still — faintly, dimly — make out those stars. As abandoned and hopeless as I felt, as much as I didn’t know where I was going or if I had the strength to keep going at all, seeing those stars reminded me of who I was and where I was. And that wasn’t nothing. When things are dark, even the smallest prick of light can mean everything.

And, no matter how unending the night may seem at the time, it does not last for ever.

We trust that the sun will rise again, and we are right to hope for what the new day might bring.

That is the spirit of Advent right there: We look East, longing for the Bright Morning Star to rise and for our Sun of Righteousness to dawn, shining “bright as the sun and moon together.” The people walking in darkness will see a great light. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Stars keep the watch when night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim
Shining beyond the frosty weather
Bright as the sun and moon together
People look East and sing today
Love the Star is on the way

One thought on “People Look East: When Night is Dim

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