The break of day is a moment that divides and defines the ambit of our experience. Perhaps we find it mundane and predictable, but each dawn is momentous. For most of us it stirs us to waking and unfolds the day ahead. I never fail to feel that each day is unique and marvellous – a never-to-be-repeated opportunity. Of course, days will recur: but never the same day. Like the blare of a siren we are aware of their approach, and with rapidity they fall behind us. There are countless days we shall forget and a small number that will remain with us until the grave. In literature the risks and possibilities of each day have been a foil for playwrights and poets:
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund dayRomeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene 5
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
It is little wonder that in Genesis the first words attributed to God are: ‘let there be light’. It is the division between light and dark which forms the fundamental aspect of life, perhaps the first element of conscious human awareness. It grants us the experience of time. In Mark 16, just as God created the first day, so the women go to the tomb ‘when the sun had risen’. It is another day; a second creation; the moment when ‘light shines in the darkness’ and humanity no longer has to dwell in night. For, although in creation day was divided from night, when the Psalmist thinks about God: ‘even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139). Whether in the darkness of rooms behind locked doors, or when, ‘just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach’ (John 21) the resurrection stories contrast night and day. Easter is a daybreak that will never darken.
Perhaps the reliability of the sun’s daily appearance dulls our appreciation of what is taking place – both in space and time. Our brief lives are lived in orbit around this ancient and enduring fixed point. It was not always here, and it will not last forever, although in all probability it will outlive humanity. While its output fluctuates, to our senses it is constant and unchanging. Our days, months, years and hours are defined by its appearance. Like so many things, including historic perceptions of earth’s centrality to the universe, the sun’s significance is estimated from a human perspective. Despite all our technology and progress we have no ability to alter or influence its existence.
Of course, when the dog stirs at first light, I am not enamoured with the shift to longer days in the Northern hemisphere. (I think 05:30 is the limit of my tolerance for greeting the new day with a spring in my step). Watching the inexorable rise of the sun out of the sea is certainly a spiritual experience and prompts metaphysical questions. It is little wonder that many religions have tied their prayer times to reflect such moments, responding to the natural world with practices that invest meaning, seek relationship and prompt contemplation. Perhaps uniquely in the ancient churches of the world, only the Armenians developed a ‘Sunrise Office’. Touchingly, it describes monks ‘having awakened in awe’, instantly moved to pray. The service came to stand apart from Prime or Matins and included Psalm 112, a text reflecting on those who fear the Lord: ‘They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous’.
This prayer signifies the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of humanity from the tombs on the first day of the week at the first hour. For the resurrection of all human natures will take place at that hour… he is the morning and the beginning of the dawning of the sun of righteousness, and it will take place at that first hour of the great day.Findikyan, M. D. (2000). On the origins and early evolution of the Armenian office of sunrise. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, (260), 283-314