People, Look East!

By Catherine Sider Hamilton
the three wise men

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. (Common Praise, 91)


It has become my family’s favourite Advent carol. Every year we look forward to singing it; always we have to sing it on the first Sunday of Advent because we can’t wait any longer. People look east! There is joy coming. There is a dawn.

This year I need this hymn more than ever. The streets are oddly quiet, this Christmas; the shops are closed. People are sick, people are without shelter, the tent cities on my walk to the office are growing. The most vulnerable among us are dying. The virus still stalks the land.

How long, O Lord? I want to say. O that thou wouldst tear open the heavens and come down! (Isa 64:1).

We have not seen our little grandchildren for nearly a year; Marian, age a year-and-a-half now, has started talking! We have not seen my parents for a year-and-a-half; my father is almost 89. Look on us, Lord. Look on us all. (64:9)

And on this day, Advent replies: People, look East!

There is One who comes. There is One who hears; even though the city is bare, there is a seed that is planted there. Look, now you see it, in the candle that burns in the night, one candle in our homes lit, one candle in our chapel, in our churches this Advent week, if there be only ten people to see it.

Stars, keep the watch: a candle is lit, when life is dim.

This candle speaks. It speaks a sure and certain hope: Love, the guest, is on the way. It is this hour He chooses, this hour when earth is bare, this hour when wings are frozen: this hour, this hard winter of our lives. This hour He has chosen. It is fledging time.

We look toward a birth. We look toward the one birth that makes all birth good, that speaks joy and not despair. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down – and He does. Quite unexpectedly in the child God hears our prayer, the prayer of all the aching hearts, Jerusalem’s prayer as it burns, the prayer of God’s weeping people:

            We have all withered like leaves

                        And our iniquities sweep us away like the wind. (Isa 64:6).

He hears our prayer in the child born in the time when nests are bare.

I miss the happy bustle of the Christmas streets. But if there is a gift in this time, it is this: these bare streets remind us of our need. We are like leaves before the wind; our iniquities sweep us away. It is easy, when the malls are buzzing and the parties are happening, to forget that we are a people in need. It is easy to forget that we are a people in sin.  

There is no one who invokes thee by name

                        Or rouses himself to cling to thee. (64:7)

Almost, that is true, here and now. We are not so far from Isaiah’s ancient vision. When the malls are closed, does Christmas still exist? Is the gift still given, if there is no one there to buy it? On the last Saturday the stores were open, I foolishly thought I would “pop” into BMV for a gift. After a very long wait in a very long line, as I was leaving, I heard the store clerk in his Santa hat say, “Have a good Christmas, I guess, if you can.”

Restore us, O God of hosts. Show us the light of your countenance. Help us to remember that it is in your face that we find our joy, that all our fresh springs are in you.

People, look East. In the quiet of the city, this year, we have a moment to look east. We have a moment to look to the One who comes to show us the light of God’s face. We have a moment to look to the One who comes to remind us of our need and the joy that is real, of the One who came to love and save and free us. Such a grace it is that is coming.

The candle shows us the way. One light burning in the night, shining beyond the frosty weather, here, now, in the midst of us, in the frozen time. It does not cease to shine when the city is bare. It burns brighter.

This candle, Advent’s first light, is a call, to turn in the new quiet of the city to the God who is our Father, to the child in whose way all our riches are found.

People, look east and sing today: Love, the Lord, is on the way.