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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Light and Darkness

In community we are trying a little experiment for Advent. Instead of singing Vespers (Evening Prayer) at five or six every evening, we are timing it to coincide with the waning of the light. Benedict does, indeed, say that Vespers should be so timed that it can be completed without the use of lamplight, but in the modern world most communities have adopted the practical, if rather prosaic, custom of a fixed hour. At least, that way, most of the community will turn up!

What have we to report of our experiment so far? First, we have been captivated by the sheer beauty of the darkness stealing across the lawn outside; the grey November sky flushed with touches of palest pink; the clouds softly luminous; beads of rain slipping down the windows like liquid crystals. Then there is the power of the words we sing and the haunting beauty of the accompanying chants. All this week we proclaim that ‘on that day there will be a great light’ (et die illa, erit lux magna). The contrast between the gathering darkness and the great burst of light that signifies the Incarnation, between the bleakness of early winter and the messianic promise of mountains running with sweetness (et stillabunt montes dulcedinem) is truly dramatic; but it is with the Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, ‘Loving Creator of the stars,’ that time and eternity meld and merge. The promise to Abraham realised in the flesh of Jesus is written across the sky in the little points of light we call stars.

The liturgy is a great teacher of prayer and theology but it is not divorced from the world around us. Singing Advent Vespers as light changes to darkness is a wonderful reminder of the dynamic of salvation, of the mystery of the Incarnation and of our own infinite need of God.

Advent Season
The Liturgy section of our main website has information about Advent, recordings of the ‘O’ antiphons and so on.

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