“The function of Advent is to remind us what we’re waiting for as we go through life too busy with things that do not matter to remember the things that do….Advent asks the question,
what is it for which you are spending your life?”
-Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year
I’ve grown to appreciate Advent more with each passing year. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just get to the Christmas joy already. Out in the world, Christmas begins before December 25th, so why does the Church have this tradition of Advent, an observed time of waiting, of preparing, of longing…but then you grow older and you weep, you grieve, you begin to understand longing in a different way. Advent begins to make more sense for those of us who know deep longing (all of us, I daresay).
Advent is full of longing and expectancy; it is also full of hope, peace, love, and joy. Advent is from the Latin adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” Advent is the season of preparation for the in-breaking of God into the world, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah in the manger. Advent is also a reminder of our anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ, when God will bring full restoration to the world. Because we know the Risen Lord, we do not long as those without hope.
On Sunday, our closing hymn will be People, Look East! It’s a joyful hymn with an imaginative Advent text and the spirit of a Christmas carol. I’ve found that the history and context of a hymn can provide for a deeper sense of meaning when singing aloud:
People, Look East! was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). “Nellie” as she was affectionately called, came from a family of writers. Her father was a successful novelist, her mother an American actor, one brother a composer, and two other brothers, writers. She had a vivid imagination and from a young age was encouraged to write.*
Nellie cared for her dying mother for twelve years of a long and difficult illness. Despite knowing suffering, her writing was hope filled. In the US, Farjeon’s best-known work is the hymn Morning Has Broken, in the UK she is best known for her children’s books.*
People, Look East! first appeared in The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. It has a lively French tune, providing a festive setting, encouraging us to look toward the advent of Christ!*
The hymn is filled with Advent imagery! East is the direction of the rising sun, and in the history of Christianity, the symbolic direction of the coming Messiah. In stanza two, the bare earth is waiting for the seed that will flourish in the reign of the Promised One. In stanza three, the star that guided the Magi shape the heavens, giving signs of hope beyond “the frosty weather.” The angels’ song, in stanza four, sets “every peak and valley humming,” a reference to Isaiah 40:4, “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low…”*
May her words inspire you as we begin to prepare our hearts for the arrival of the Christ Child.
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.
See you in church!
In the name of the one who taught us to love one another –
*Information about People, Look East! from C. Michael Hawn, Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology