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Day Begins With Night

Winter Dawn on Saltspring Island, BC

I love that in the Jewish and Christian traditions, days actually begin the night before based on the lunar calendar of scripture.  As the sun lowers below the horizon, swathing the world in darkness, we move into the new day.  In earlier times, the night before a Christian feast day, vigil was kept. Vigil comes from the Latin vigilia which means wakefulness.  Keeping vigil is in part what Advent is about, staying awake, keeping watch, waiting.  We may go to vigil services for Christmas or Easter.  There are times of keeping vigil in our own lives.  The five days I sat by my mother’s bed in the hospital as she lay dying was a holy vigil.  It was a time of being fully present to her in that liminal space, the between time, waiting for that last moment — the great hinge of our lives that moves us into another way of being beyond what we can know.  I am aware right now of a fellow Oblate who lays in her bed dying of cancer right this very moment, with her husband keeping vigil.  I surround them with love in my imagination.  I keep vigil with them in my prayers.

There is great wisdom in honoring the night before the day, the place of darkness and womb-tending before the full light of morning.  We move into the rest of evening to renew ourselves for the work ahead.  We embrace the time of unknowing before insight comes.  Our Christmas celebrations of the incarnation are preceded by this time of preparation and anticipation of new birth.  Honoring the night first acknowledges the seeds planted deep in the soil only just beginning to break open.  Beginning with night gives us the space of darkness to know there is much more to the world than what we can see.   Sitting under a night sky, we can’t help but be moved to awe and wonder at the vastness of it all as darkness stretches above us.

I am moved by the words of Henri Nouwen this early morning, in an essay titled “Waiting for God,” in the book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas:

To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life.  So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. . . The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for what we have already seen.

The night offers us such space. Advent is the season of night, when we move into greater and greater darkness, knowing that dawn is near because we have tasted it before.  In a world bathed in sorrow and grief, we continue to wait because we have known joy and hope.  We continue to wait because the landscape of our unknowing in some way teaches us about the path ahead.  We embrace the great Mystery and the vastness of our longings, trusting that they lead us forward into the night.

-Christine Valters Paintner

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15 Responses

  1. That’s something I’ve always been drawn to so much in the Judaic tradition too, that night begins the day. Its similar to me to how books are read there left (feminine/dark/womb) to right (masculine/light/expansion).

    And I love the Christian traditions there with vespers, and with the liturgical new year being the quiet of advent.

    I still have a pretty hard time reading with your new layout. Guess that shows how good your blog is that I would always come back anyway : )

    Blessed Advent : )

  2. There is so much here that I could respond to. I may need to keep vigil with it in me and birth a post of my own!

    Right now I am wondering what it would be like if every night we kept vigil for the day ahead. How much more ‘awake’ to the gifts of the day might we be?

    I’m also warmed to think of the ways I kept vigil with the babe that was in my womb – before and during his birth. I knew he was coming from around 9 P.M. on June 7th. But it wasn’t until 3:50 A.M. on June 8th that he pushed out into the world. It was the middle of the night; it was a brand new day.

    Now, at 2:57 P.M. in the hills of Iowa, the shadows are long and lengthening. I will keep vigil for the newness unfolding. And I, too, hold your sister oblate in her journey. Bles, bless, bless.

  3. Hi Bette, I do love this photo too. I went to Saltspring Island for retreat last January and it was a very powerful time. I am hoping to return again in January as part of my sabbatical. I love the image of “inner vigil.” Blessings, Christine

  4. Whoa….what silky solitude! What beauty you experienced in person, Christine. Seeing it even in a real photo is hard to believe such miracles really do exist right here…for US. Growing up, I didn’t hear the word much or truly experience ‘vigil’. I now am drawn to an inner vigil, deep in the holy darkness of my soul. Like a faint santuary light, constantly waiting upon the holy voice of God. May be all be listening and waiting for our callings.

    Thank you again for this Sacred Art of Living place and for your wonderful photos and sharings.

  5. Thanks Lisa, Cathleen, and Me.

    Rich that is a beautiful poem, we must be both tapping into the same underground streams of inspiration.

    Lisa, how wonderful. I don’t usually hear churches using that song, wish I could hear you!

  6. Just had to tell you; last night I was approached to sing for a function our church calls “Journey to Bethlehem.” Lots of caroling around the neighborhood starting from different points, lead my animals (the walking, not the caroling) to the church where there is a live nativity scene. The song? Breath of Heaven. :) I said Yes.

  7. We have some major synchronicity going on. I posted this haiku on my blog ( this morning:

    Darkness falls
    light cocoons inside
    morning breaks.


  8. I have always appreciated the sense that day begins with night, that we rest for the day ahead, that dark comes before light. Thank you for this reminder in this holy season. Blessings, Cathleen