I'm going to attempt a series of posts (always a bad idea!) on the blog, looking at Advent and Christmas hymns. I'll explain them and uncover their important doctrinal and theological message.
My first hymn is one of my absolute favorites: "People, Look East". I'll post the five verses as I know them, although I understand that verse 3 ("Birds, though you long...") is not as well-known, and that verse 5 ("Angels, announce...") has a few variations.
This hymn was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) in 1928. Farjeon, a Catholic, also penned "Morning Has Broken," an ode of "praise for [creation] springing fresh from the Word," which is perhaps more well-known for being sung by Cat Stevens.
"People, Look East" is a hymn about preparation. Each verse of this hymn personifies Love: Guest, Rose, Bird, Star, Lord. Love is on the way, Love is coming, Love is about to arrive; and so the one who will be receiving Love must prepare accordingly.
1. 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.
Love is a guest. To prepare for his arrival, the house is tidied up, the fireplace is properly cleaned and adorned, and the table is set for the meal. Preparation in this verse is expressed as a desire to get your house in order so that the guest does not feel unwelcome. The Lord is, indeed, a Guest: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." (Rev. 3:20)
2. Furrows, be glad! Though earth is bare, / one more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength, the seed to nourish, / that in course the flower may flourish.
People, look East and sing today: / Love, the Rose, is on the way.
A furrow is a groove or trench in dirt, the kind that would result from plowing the soil. Furrows are dug, seeds or bulbs are planted in them, and then the dirt is raked over to cover what has been planted. These furrows have perhaps been abandoned for some time, or maybe they just have not produced well; but yet one more seed is planted in them. The soil, then, should "give up [its] strength" to nourish that seed so that the flower may grow. The preparation here calls for holding nothing back. The Lord is a Rose: "Lo, how a rose e'er-blooming from tender stem hath sprung," says the German hymn. Jesus is the bud springing forth from the shoot of the stump of Jesse, as we will hear on the Second Sunday of Advent. (cf. Isaiah 11:1-10)
3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, / guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen / He for fledging time has chosen.
People, look East and sing today: / Love, the Bird, is on the way.
The nest is built before the eggs are laid. The building of a nest is more industrious task than staying put and guarding eggs. But preparation for the hatchling requires both the labor and the waiting. And the hour when the egg will hatch may be the least expected — or desired — hour, but it is the one God has chosen. Our preparation requires self-sacrifice and enduring hardships for the sake of the beloved. Medieval minds associated Jesus with the pelican (Pie pellicane, the pellican-in-her-piety), which was believed to pierce her own breast to feed her young on her own blood when food was scarce.
4. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim / one more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather, / bright as sun and moon together.
People, look East and sing today: / Love, the Star, is on the way.
Stars are the sentinels of the sky, "keep[ing] the watch." They must shine the brighter as the night grows darker. Yet in the cold and dark of night shall come one more light, a light brighter than both sun and moon together, which "shall brim" "the bowl"; that is, it will cause "the bowl" of the heavens to be filled to the brim with its light. The stars teach us the need to be watchful in our waiting and preparing. The Lord is the "star [which] shall come forth out of Jacob" (Num. 24:17) Who was signaled by another star appearing in the heavens which led the Magi to Him. (cf. Matt. 2:2) He is the "bright" "morning star" Who brings the day. (2 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 2:28; 22:16)
5. Angels, announce on this great feast / Him Who cometh from the East.*
Set ev'ry peak and valley humming / with the word: "The Lord is coming!"
People, look East and sing today: / Love, the Lord, is on the way.
The great feast is that of Christmas, of course, the Nativity of our Lord. The hymn's repeated call to "look East" is explained here: the Lord "cometh from the East." His star rose in the East (cf. Matt. 2:2), and He announced His coming to be like lightning which "comes from the east and shines as far as the west." (Matt. 24:27) The Lord ascended into Heaven from Mt. Olivet, a "sabbath day's journey" to the East of Jerusalem, and the angels told the Apostles that He would return "in the same way." (Acts 1:9-12) The angels repeat the message of the prophets, especially Isaiah and John the Baptist. Every peak and valley should be stirring with that message, "The Lord is coming." Every peak should be humbled by it, and every valley should be filled with it. We too are angels, messengers, and we should announce the coming of the Lord, not only on the approaching feast of Christmas, but on every Lord's day, and on every day the Lord graces us with breath and life.
The word "Advent" comes from the Latin adventus ("an arrival, a coming"), from advenire (ad- + venire, "to come to"). Until the One is coming arrives, we are waiting. But our waiting is not a sit-on-our-hands sort of waiting; it is an active and lively waiting. Advent is a time of preparation, and I think this hymn presents this theme very well.
Our spiritual houses should be put in order to receive the Lord worthily. We should rejoice despite whatever spiritual barrenness we may be suffering, and so nurture with all our energies the gift of grace which has been planted in us. We should brave the cold and dark nights of our souls, being willing to endure sacrifices for the sake of our Lord, Who bore such great burdens for us. We should stay awake and keep watch; we should remain vigilant, for we know not the hour nor the day of the Lord's return. And we should not neglect our duty as messengers of our Lord to proclaim His coming in every peak and valley of our lives.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
* Alternate wording: "Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth" and "Angels, announce to man and beast Him who cometh from the east".