The Miracle of Awakening

This blog is excerpted from the Introduction to Sarah Arthur’s Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide. 

We arrive at Lent, those forty days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. It’s that time when the church—and the soul—faces the tomb, aware of its own mortality, seeking the promise of light on the other side. It’s a journey we make alone, yet not alone, surrounded as we are by those who have caught a glimpse of sunrise. And we need them.

Whoever has lain awake during moonless hours between midnight and dawn knows this: the darkness is final. It owns the earth utterly. It takes hold in the tick of the clock and the stillness of the woods and the shallow breath of your own mute body. Anyone taking notes during those hours would be convinced there is nothing more: no further turning of the earth, no future flourishing of existence under a warm star, no life recalled from the tomb. It is the last and definitive night.

But then, by some magic that cannot be quantified, it is not. The earth stirs, inhales, stretches. A bird pipes in a forsythia, as if talking in its sleep, startled awake by its own daring. Light, where there was no light, makes visible: first the outline of a window, then the edge of the bed, your own hand, a book open on the covers.

There’s no saying precisely when the turn happens. But it does. Every morning. From the beginning of the world.

It’s the same miracle of awakening that happens when winter changes to spring. The earth, frozen in a silence that will not break, the days brief and brutal, our own cold selves making their grim way through the dark . . . and then . . . and then . . . something shifts. Light in the east, earlier than we remembered; a lift in the air, like a warm updraft; a patch of mud that grows and grows as the snow recedes.

It’s the same turning as when the church, emptied of vestments and cold as a crypt, lights one candle. When the community finds itself, against all odds, redeemed. Lenten sorrow makes way for Easter joy, and nothing—nothing—will quench the dawn.

And it’s the same shift that happens when the soul, alone in grief or guilt or illness or isolation, finds company in the life-giving words of another. During the midnight hours we shelter our guttering faith, and by its light we read poetry and prose that transcend centuries, hemispheres. Words from poets whose battles with God do not lead to victory but to a kind of grumpy determination. Stories from novelists who have tumbled into the abyss of their own undoing— of everyone’s undoing—and found Someone there already, holding the bottom rung of the rescue ladder. Raise your eyes, these voices say. Look to the east. Do you not see it? There. The dawn. 

In this collection you will find such voices. And their words are not always easy. Lent is, after all, the season of repentance, of soul-searching, of Christ’s lonely journey to the Cross. We start in darkness together, naming its various shades, uncertain, even, that morning will come. And the night deepens, if possible, during Holy Week, when the crowds that once celebrated hope’s arrival now spurn it with venom, taking all of humanity down in the process. The stone is rolled across the cold tomb; and there we are, buried with Jesus, left with nothing but a body wound in a white sheet, destined for dust.

But take heart, these voices say. There is a power here in the bowels of the earth, a “deeper magic,” as C. S. Lewis called it.1 Death is not given the final word. In the night of the tomb, our Lord sits up, shakes off the sheet, swings his feet down onto the cold stone floor. He steps out from the crypt into the cool of a damp garden, inhales, smiles. Christ doesn’t need to turn east to greet the sunrise: he is himself the Dawn by whose “light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). The sun will not set again. That was our last night. Ever.

So, at last, we enter the season of Eastertide, which runs from Easter Monday to Pentecost. We step into the morning of a new day. These poets and novelists remind us that the sunrise is undeserved, but here we are. Our battles are ongoing but just skirmishes, really, the last desperate attempts of the losing side to go down fighting. The war itself is over. When it’s our time to physically enter the tomb of our own mortality, we know that if we have been buried with Christ, we will rise with Christ. We’ll ride on his coattails, so to speak. And what we’ll see then won’t be simply light at the end of a tunnel, but light at the end of all things, the final and permanent morning.

So let it begin. Read More

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