From the beginning of the written human experience, the east has been symbolic of birth and rebirth, of creation and recreation. The sun rises in the east to begin each new day. Genesis tells us that God created the Garden of Eden in the east. The powerful east wind of the breath of God drove back the waters of the Red Sea and created a path of liberation for the Hebrews. Even the star of the Magi showed itself in the east. St. John of Damascus instructed early Christians to adore the risen Christ facing east, the place where Jesus ascended to heaven and where he will come again. Early churches were built with their altars facing east so that priests and laity together could celebrate the Eucharist facing the symbolic direction of new life in Christ. Christian burials spoke of hope from the east. Graveyards abound with the feet of the deceased pointed east so they can stand to face the returning Christ. Slaves probably started this custom of burying the dead facing east, because east was not only the direction of the return of the liberating Christ, it was also the direction of home - Africa.
For Christians and Jews, East is more that a simple map direction. It is our reminder that we are a people of hope in our home with God, no matter how distant that hope or home may seem at times. And there are times when our hopes and homes seem far away.
Before the Common Era, in the late 6th century, King Nebuchadnezzar decreed that the Jews must leave Israel and Judah. Thus began the Babylonian Exile, a period of about forty years where God’s chosen were forced to leave their homes and families and live in a foreign land. They were forced to leave the temple, which would eventually be destroyed. For our modern faith, we understand the presence of God as with us always, but for the ancient Jews, the temple was it. No other place to worship. No other place to gather for formal prayer. So to be sent out of the land and away from the temple really was, to many, being sent away from God.
That feeling of exile is a very human experience. Being forced from our homes and lives as they were or as we think they should be. Forced to leave everything and everyone behind, not knowing if we’ll ever see anything familiar again or feel joy again. Even, maybe feeling exiled from our faith and our hope, that all our joy is behind us. We may never experience the tragedy of the Babylonian Exile, but in our world and lives, people are still exiled. We are exiled. Violence tears apart communities and families, flinging them from their land and their lives. Poverty and financial anxiety crush hope in all parts of the globe and in our communities. Human failing exiles those who want to be included. Death exiles us from loved ones, at least for now. And darkness finds all of us in our lives. Tragedy, unfortunate circumstance, sadness, and grief enclose us in the valley of shadows. In short, we all have times in our lives where hope and home seem far away. We all experience exile into sorrow and darkness, to places where we are mired in unhappiness, tragedy, and life gone awry.
While the holy season of Advent is one of anticipation and waiting, it is also a season where we can admit the difficulty of human life. During this time of year, we are all vulnerable to moments of grief and sadness for loved ones who have died, for disappointments of the past year, for anxiety about the coming year, or for those places where life seems to have jumped completely off the track and hope is too far away to see. Advent is a season where we remember the stories of our ancestors and their exiles into sadness and darkness. In readings and hymns, we hear their laments and their cries, which don’t sound that differently from the laments of our world today. Grief and sorrow are not competitive events; everyone’s wounds hurt. God never asks us to pretend bad things don’t happen in life or that we don’t feel lost and alone, and I worry for those who skip over the grief, who ignore their pain. In our confession of pain and sadness, God finds space to remind us that hope and home are never far away.
The Scribe Baruch tells Jerusalem, banished from their land, their families, and feeling exiled from their God, to take off the garment of sorrow, and put on the robe of God’s love. Look east, and see hope, see the future, see the glory of a new day. Baruch’s words almost sound pithy. “Hey, I know the past few decades have been really, really bad, but chin up, God’s still God and Israel will walk safely with her Lord,” he writes.
Pithy, maybe. But Baruch’s words are true, no matter how difficult they may be to hear. And honestly, words of hope and comfort are some of the hardest words for us to hear when we are exiled in the grief of our own worries and troubles. Too often because others are trying to minimize our experience of exile or to redeem darkness. Redemption is God's purview. And redemption is what the prophets tell us -that our hope in God is never lost. We have to trust that God is God, that God is comforting those in distress, and that God never leaves us alone.
We are humans living life that is not fair or even fun at times. Tragedy, sorrow, disappointment, and grief are simply facets of the human experience. Advent acknowledges that, despite the happy gloss our culture puts on the season. The wisdom of Advent also reminds us that we are God’s, and that hope and love are always with us. God is with us, loving us and comforting us when we are glorious and loving us when we stumble and fall and make a huge mess of things.
As Christians, we do not live our new life in Christ so that bad things won’t happen, but to support and sustain us when bad things do happen. We do not pretend that life is filled always and only with joy, but that life is a complex blend of light and darkness, and that somehow, someway, God needs the darkness so we can see the comforting light. Comfort may be God’s work alone, some act of love , mercy, and understanding in the sole purview of the Almighty, and our job is simply to trust in the Holy Comforter.
So may we indeed have the grace to hear the message of the prophets: not only the message of our call to prepare the way of the Lord, but also by remembering that our hope is in God. May we know deep within our valleys of sadness and despair that our comfort is with God, even when we’re not sure how that comfort will happen or even if it can happen. And may we lift up our heads and hearts, heavy with whatever sorrow, grief, or desperation we may have, and look to the place of new birth, of new life and resurrection, and of new hope.
So people, look East, and sing today. Love the lord is on the way.
From the sermon preached at St. Michael the Archangel Episcopal Church's Service of Solace.