As a church musician, I’ve heard the complaint that the songs of Advent don’t seem as joyful as Christmas songs. I’ll agree that some of them can feel a little heavy. After all, Advent is a time of reflection and preparation, and reflections and preparations don’t always come easily or lightly. Then along comes People, Look East, with its lively rhythm and words that bounce with joy and eager anticipation.
The author of the text, Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known for her children’s stories. In addition to this hymn, she also penned Morning Has Broken, often associated with the recording by Cat Stevens. The music came later, written by Christopher Steel.
The instruction to “look east” is reminiscent of the Magi’s visit to see the Christ Child. They made their journey when they looked east and saw the star.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” -Matthew 2:1-2 (NKJV)
When we talk about facing east, we are usually talking about east on the compass, the direction of the rising sun, symbolic of the coming of Christ. For centuries, church have been constructed with the altar in the eastern part of the building. When churches were built in locations that did not permit that orientation, the end of the building containing the altar is referred to as liturgical east, or the “east end” regardless of the actual direction. Whether literally or symbolically, when the Church faces east to pray, it does so in anticipation of the coming of the Lord.
The first verse of the hymn puts it this way:
“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.”
In Revelation 3:20 we read, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” Jesus does not force His way in. He waits for your invitation. In this Advent season I pray you open the door of your heart to His divine love.