I started walking around dawn for a reason both practical and embarrassing:
I hate being hot.
I don’t like sweating. I hate getting sunburns and putting sunscreen on is a pain. I can’t stand the feel of a ninety-degree summer sun beating down on me. And so, in my effort to avoid these things during the warmer months, I started walking before sunrise so that I could be safely back in my house by the time the sun had ascended to its rightful, blazing place in the sky. I always assumed that, as the weather grew more compliant, I’d walk later and later in the day and take advantage of the chance to relax.
I didn’t, and don’t. Unexpectedly, I have come to love sunrises.
They are riotous with color: tangerine and violet and gold and crimson. They come quiet and slow and then burst into splendor unexpectedly. This morning, as I padded my way through a misty field in the chill and kept an eye to the orange glow in the east, I was delighted to watch fingers of golden light spread slowly over shadowed grass and ignite color in all the gray. A delicate warmth beat against my back.
Sunrise is a special time.
The ancients knew it; the builders of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, built a passage tomb designed specifically so that the first beam of solstice light would pierce the dark, shadowy recesses of the interior. The Celts knew it; they believed that, at dawn and at dusk, the veil between worlds was particularly thin and that anything was possible. Literature knows it; the great classics of the canon are stuffed full of symbolic sunrises and meaningful dawns.
What strikes me is that as believers, we don’t often know it. In our modern world we don’t have much need of the sunrise; we turn on the light and the darkness ourselves inside our homes when it suits us. The warmth from the sun’s light isn’t something we’ve come to need or cherish; we crank the thermostat up or down depending from on our preference. Thanks to our technology and our desires, we live isolated and insulated from God’s creation, and in that way of living, we miss something.
If you’ve ever walked in the pre-dawn dark – when everything is dim and unnerving rustles from the underbrush accompany you on your journey, when you cannot see what is around you or very far ahead of you, when you are shivering from the chill – you feel a deep gratitude for the sunrise and its heat and the way it casts into illumination everything hidden. You begin to understand what it means for light to conquer darkness. You realize that something inside our souls is programmed to be desperate for, and welcoming of, light. You watch the burning sun resting on the horizon and blink away the spots in your vision and you understand, in a small and diminished sense, a little of why God told Moses that “man cannot see me and live” (Exodus 33:20) and why joy, indeed, does come with the morning (Psalm 30:5).
Jesus spoke of God and His kingdom in simple parables, and often used the natural world to illustrate His examples. I find those stories more vivid now that I walk in the early mornings; they resonate in my heart more strongly than they might have otherwise. And I have come to understand that the benefit past believers might have had over us – us, with our thermostats and electric lights and our internet and our everything that makes it so that we hardly need to leave home – is that their lives forced them to interact with a natural world in which they were powerless.
Because try as we might, we can’t make the sun come back up once it’s set. We can’t make it rain, not really, when we want it to. We can’t banish the darkness with our words – we can only stave it off with tools, or create temporary pockets of light against it. As God says to Job,
Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place? (38:12)
Being out in the natural world and subject to its whims reminds me of how powerless I am. How much my entire life and my very continued existence hinges on the machinery of God’s good grace. We delude ourselves that this isn’t so; we perceive, all too often, that we control the world that we live in with machines, with our minds, with our own two hands. But we don’t.
And all it takes is a simple sunrise to remind me.