Light: O Oriens 2015

Two ancient customs give today’s Advent liturgy a unique focus. This morning, at Chapter, there is the Missus Est, a talk based on the words of the annunciation gospel, ‘the angel Gabriel was sent from God’ (cf Luke 1. 26 et seq); then, this evening, we sing the fifth O antiphon, O Oriens. The connection between them is light:

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.

Usually, at this time of year, we in the northern hemisphere are experiencing cold and darkness. Everything seems dead, and this is or near to, the darkest day of the year. Only the night sky is brilliant with stars and the soft, silvery gleam of the moon. The warm, wet weather we’ve been having recently may dull our sense of the radical nature of what the antiphon proclaims. We may have to work a little harder to understand that the promise of the Morning Star, of the return of light and warmth, is a promise of new life — new life, not just a return of the old one as part of a seasonal cycle. Christ does not come among us in a warm, fuzzy way. The Child in the manger is also the Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice. He will expose all the sins and subterfuges we prefer to keep hidden. His light will judge us, yes, but it will also set us free because he gazes at us with the eyes of love and mercy.

St Bernard has a beautful image of the whole of creation on its knees before Mary, begging her to give Gabriel the word that would give us the Word made flesh. He sees Adam and all those in the shadows of Sheol asking for the gift of light and life. Today, when we are probably finding life increasingly hectic, we could perhaps stop for a few moments and consider this. The salvation of the whole world hung on Mary’s assent to what the angel asked. God did not force her, nor does he force us; but without Mary’s faith and trust, we would be in darkness still.  If we would welcome the Morning Star into our lives, we too must have faith and trust in the word he speaks to us. Only so can the darkness of our hearts and minds be scattered for ever.

Note: today’s O antiphon, text and music (Flash needed) is available with scripture references here,


O Clavis David or Missus Est?

Today puts me in a quandary. Do I write about the day’s O antiphon or follow monastic tradition by commenting on the day’s gospel in what is known as a Missus Est because it focuses on the words, ‘An angel was sent from God’? Or can we have something of both?

Today’s O antiphon is

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is impossible to sing that antiphon without thinking of St Bernard’s words in a Missus Est written nearly nine hundred years ago. He addresses Our Lady, daughter of David’s royal line, urging her to give the waiting angel her consent to what God asks of her, to give the word which will give us the Word made flesh. He pictures all creation on its knees before her, including Adam and those imprisoned in darkness and the shadow of death.

I think we can identify with all those on the fringes with Adam, as it were, whose faith is sometimes wobbly, whose lives are sometimes messy but who are sure (most of the time) of this: our need for a Saviour. We are reminded today of both our fragility and our glory as human beings. Mary gave her consent to be the Mother of God in a moment of unequalled faith. Had she not done so, we would be in darkness still.  Jesus is the one and only Key, but his Mother provides the lock and wards that allow the Key to work.


Our Need of Freedom

Today we ask the Key of David to come and free us from darkness and the shadow of death. Shortly before we sing that antiphon, I shall have given the traditional monastic talk called the Missus Est on the words ‘an angel was sent from God’. The two things come together beautifully, because I think Mary was the most supremely free person who has ever lived. It was given to her either to accept or reject motherhood of God. St Bernard pictures the whole world kneeling before her at the angel’s coming, waiting for the answer she will give: ‘Give the word, Mary, which will give us the Word.’ It was indeed a moment of unequalled faith when Mary embraced the divine Word in her heart and spoke the human word that would set us free: ‘Let it be done to me as you have said.’ The Greek uses the optative, which makes our rather passive English phrase look weak and inadequate. Mary willed her conception, was eager to do God’s bidding, co-operated gladly.

In these last few days of Advent, when the birth of Christ seems very close, let’s spend a few moments thinking about what we owe that young Jewish girl. She let go all her dreams in obedience to the word of God, accepted a vocation that would ask more of her than she could ever have imagined. So it may be with us. Our oblate Pauline quotes these lines of the poet Czeslaw Milosz

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible,
and only late do we discover how obedient we were.

They are worth pondering in the light of our own vocation. We may think we have lived all our lives circumscribed by the bonds of duty only to realise that, in fact, we have been, like Mary, supremely free, blessed beyond measure.