Monday, December 13, 2010

Dayspring from on High / Desire of Nations

O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

I am using the four Sunday sermons in the season of Advent to explore the Old Testament images in the hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. This hymn gives voice to our deepest yearning for the fulfillment of God’s promises; for a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. This morning we focus on the images of Dayspring from on High and Desire of nations.

Dayspring. Have you ever longed for the advent of morning? The image of the dayspring always takes me back to my scouting days tent camping on a very, very, very cold weekend. Whatever temperature my sleeping bag was rated, it was significantly colder than that. I was freezing all night long. In my sleep I dreamt that it was morning and that one of the adults had started the campfire. I dreamt that I emerged from my tent and began to warm myself by the fire. But it was just a dream. I woke up in total darkness, deeply cold. When I fell back asleep the dream repeated itself… morning, fire, warm, but just a dream. This went on and on throughout the night, at least ten times before the real dawn broke and a warming fire was lit.

Longing for dawn. I think about those of you who have been awake all night in a hospital room, either as the patient or as the care-giver, waiting for the hope, the promise, or the relief of the new day. Maybe you have served on nightwatch or worked the nightshift, where the first light of day signals the end of vigilance or labor. I remember being without power after Hurricane Isabel tore through Virginia. I was surprised how quickly life reoriented around the sun’s rising and falling. Dawn brought with it the opportunity to pick up tasks unfinished at the onset darkness the previous day.

The image of the dayspring metaphorically draws on these kinds of experiences and attaches them to something much deeper. “Cheer us by thy drawing nigh.” “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night.” Gloom, whatever form it takes, has a heaviness to it that weighs us down. If you have ever struggled with depression you know this weight and how hard it is to bear. We all sense the weighty burden of our present gloomy economy. Each day’s business news feels dark, heavy, foreboding and we long for the dawn of a new day when the economy feels more promising, more hopeful, more cheerful.

Every job comes with its own unique set of challenges, but some career fields are especially weighty. I admire people who work in our legal system: police officers, investigators, lawyers, judges, prison officials, parole officers – people whose daily life and work exposes them to the worst of the world’s sin. I also admire people whose jobs place them squarely in the midst of the world’s brokenness: councilors, social service workers, and (more and more) teachers and school administrators – people on the front lines of compassion ministering to those whose lives have been ripped apart. And I admire people who work in the medical profession: doctors, nurses, therapists, people who work in care facilities, hospice workers – the folks who daily deal with the effects of disease and death. These are vocations set in life’s darkness and gloom and they carry a burden that can and does get the better of many who serve in these fields.

In ancient monastic worship, each verse of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel was assigned to be sung on a specific day leading up to Christmas. “O come, thou Dayspring from on high” was intentionally designated to be sung on December 21 because it is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. And just as we yearn on that day for the return of the light and the lengthening of days, so too we speak and sing and pray of our desire for the dawn of a new day when sin and brokenness and death are put to flight. We wait for a messianic era when the Sun of Righteousness will shine on all the world.

We hold that this new dawn is not just for us raised in the Christian tradition, but is for all creation and for all God’s creatures. We affirm that God is not merely our desire, but the Desire of nations, of all peoples. The theology behind this belief is quite straight-forward: since God created every human being in God’s image, every human being is infused with a desire to know his/her Creator.

It should not surprise us that people in every culture of every age and era have manifested a religious and spiritual dimension. Some dismiss this as the human response to mysteries beyond contemporary understanding: i.e., if you don’t understand the physics of lightening then you worship it as a god. Without question some aspects of religion have been and still are rooted in superstition. But there is something more than this welling up in every human soul. Each of us has a sense that something from beyond us calls out to us; that something which designs us sustains us and seeks to know us; that we are invited into some form of relationship with a Holy Presence who is far removed from us, yet intimately known within us.

You might think that this common trait of spiritual searching would unite the human race and create bonds of affection that reach across race, culture, and social order, but we all recognize this is not at all the case. It is cliché to say that more wars have been fought in the name of God than any other cause, but I see that as being a vast simplification of the manifold factors which direct human action and interaction. Still, too often religion has the effect of driving us apart rather than pulling us together.

Think of the images in O Come, O Come Emmanuel we have explored over the last three Sundays:

Wisdom from on high from which we receive guidance from the Creator of all things,
Lord of Might who leads from a position of moral authority,
Branch of Jesse who provides an enduring hope rooted in the past,
Key of David who opens a way for us to know God,
Dayspring from on high who initiates a new day free of sin, brokenness, and death,
And Desire of nations who binds all hearts as one and makes divisions cease.

Of these six, the Desire of nations is something we members of the human family could achieve on our own simply by acknowledging the value and benefit of peace. But of the six it also feels like the one farthest away.

There are two slightly different wordings for this verse. The one we sing goes…

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

The other version reads…

O come desire of nations, bind,
all peoples in one heart and mind;
bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

We yearn for a world where weighty darkness and gloom are put to flight by the dawn of a new day and we yearn for a world filled with heaven’s peace. And as with the images we have already explored we find that our Advent yearning can and does lead to partial fulfillment in us even as we await the complete fulfillment of God’s promise.

The bedside nurse who ministers with compassion to a person dying, the teacher whose encouragement and support lift the sinking spirits of a troubled student, the police officer who overcomes the inner struggle to be jaded and finds a way to respond to each person with dignity and respect, the social worker who sees the client as being a person not just a case file… each rides on the first rays of the dawn of a new day. Every time we work through an argument to find a place of common ground, every time we rejoice in the achievements or shoulder the burdens of another, every time we do the hard work of reconciling a broken relationship, every time we refuse to respond to insult by inflicting injury, every time we celebrate cultural differences and discern our shared humanity in our distinctiveness… every time this happens heaven’s peace is manifested in our world.

God’s promise is that we do not have to manufacture these responses on our own. Whatever dayspring emanates from our lives comes from on high. Whatever peace we are able to offer or to find is of God’s doing. In Advent we yearn for light and peace in all its fullness and promise and what we find is that God is present in us as light and peace; light and peace which we can manifest to the world.