Light in Darkness: O Oriens

Today’s O antiphon is

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, singing that antiphon on the day of the winter solstice seems especially appropriate. The darkness lasts so long, and this year, for those of us who live in Britain, there is the recollection of Lockerbie twenty-five years ago and the moral darkness we associate with violence and murder. Sometimes, when we look inside ourselves, we see darkness there also. Not, I trust, the darkness of violence, but perhaps the darkness of loneliness, failure (as we understand it), fear or despair. That is the darkness that keeps us imprisoned in the shadow of death, the darkness that the Morning Star comes to scatter with his wonderful light.

One of the small joys I experienced as a nun of Stanbrook was watching the dawn light steal over the sanctuary at Vigils. In the winter months we began and ended in inky blackness, but gradually, as the weeks wore on, the light began to pierce the gloom until finally, in summer, the great East window glittered and shone long before we went into choir. A similar rhythm can mark our sense of interior darkness. There are times when we think it will never end. We must hold firm and trust that it will lift. The Sun of Justice will rise with healing in his wings, as the prophet says, and they will be spread over us, too.

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The Power of Regret

No one reading today’s first lesson from Isaiah (Is. 48.17–19) can fail to be moved by the note of regret. Missed opportunities, the sins of omission rather than commission, how they lie heavy about us! But Isaiah is not talking about the regret we feel, rather he is expressing God’s sorrow at the way in which we have messed up. Yes, for once this is all about God, not us. The gospel (Matt 11.16–19) takes this one step further when Jesus voices his frustration at the fickleness of our response. We want the reverse of what we have. We fail to recognize the opportunities offered us, and ultimately, it is our loss.

I think these two passages mark an important stage in our Advent journey. They are the point at which we have to stop playing around, grow up and prepare for change. The call to live with integrity becomes ever more urgent the closer we draw to the Light. Today is the feast of St Lucy, whose name comes from the same root as the word for light. Under the old Julian calendar, her feast marked the shortest day of the year, when everything was at its darkest. There is a psychological truth in that. Very often our decision to follow Christ has to be made in less than ideal conditions, in darkness rather than light, and what spurs us on can seem, at first sight, negative. Our regret at misspent opportunities may provide the initial impetus, but it will not last unless something more positive takes its place. We have to hand everything over to God and allow his love to provide what we need to sustain us.

The movement from fear to love, from self-interest to God-interest, is the work of a lifetime, but we must begin. We do not want to hear on Judgement Day the Holy One lamenting our failure to co-operate with grace. Regret, like nostalgia, is a very adult emotion. Today we can see that it is also potentially a very powerful one. May St Lucy help us with her prayers to live up to our vocation:

Let the prayer of the virgin martyr Lucy support us, Lord,
so that with each passing year we may celebrate her entry into life,
and finally see you face to face in heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

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Dominus veniet

Dominus veniet, the Lord will come: we sing those words over and over again this week, but I sometimes wonder whether we ever really think what we mean by them. Those who have recently experienced the death of someone they love will know what they mean without necessarily being able to articulate their understanding. They have experienced that moment when the Lord takes command and no amount of human effort is of any avail. We pray for the Lord’s coming at the end of time but, to be honest, most of us are happy to have it put off to an indefinite future. The Second Coming is, quite literally, too awful to contemplate.

In Advent and at Christmas we celebrate the three comings of the Lord: in time, in his birth as a Baby at Bethlehem; at the end of time, in his coming as Judge; and his coming to us now, at every moment of our lives, as the Word who gives life. The first and third comings are ones we grasp, or think we can; but the Second Coming baffles us, scares us even. It would be a good Advent exercise to spend a few minutes thinking about the Second Coming and how we are to prepare for it. If the idea of God as Judge paralyzes us, we can take heart from another image, equally demanding, but with happier overtones. ‘At midnight the Bridegroom’s voice was heard. Go out to meet him.’ We can so easily forget that that the Church is the Bride of Christ and in the Second Coming awaits her nuptials. No wonder we are urged to live lives which hasten the day of the Lord’s coming.

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Fear of the Unseen: Radiation and the Devil

I have often observed that more people are afraid of the devil than actually believe in God. The idea of a malign power bent on our destruction is somehow more believable than a loving God who has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. I think that is why some people spend their lives trying to ‘placate’ this unseen power. Their lives are more or less crippled by fear: it never really leaves them alone. (This may not be your experience: I suspect that clergy and nuns tend to hear the darker secrets of their fellow human beings, and fear often features largely.)

In the last few days we have seen the focus of attention move from the suffering of those affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to what is happening at Fukushima. I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of what is happening there, but I find it strange that the world’s media is more concerned about what might happen than what actually has, and I think it all comes down to fear of the unknown. Radiation is something we cannot apprehend with the senses. It scares us because it is beyond our ordinary experience. We may pore over the statistics of the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, even Chernobyl, but we can’t quite convince ourselves that we may not be facing armageddon. We are, quite simply, afraid, and at root the fear is for ourselves. Put like that, the need to help the Japanese suffering from cold and hunger becomes more urgent, even if it has fallen from the headlines. In so doing we may find we have helped ourselves.

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