O Oriens and Our Need of Light 2016

It is the shortest, darkest day of the year here in Britain but today’s O antiphon shimmers and shines. For the first time since we began the sequence, the coming of God as Saviour and Redeemer is hailed with three dfferent titles, all of them luminous: Morning Star, Splendour of Eternal Light, Sun of Justice. In a world that has embraced the thickest moral darkness we have seen for many a year, that Light is what we cling to in hope and over which we rejoice.

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.

It is a short, ostensibly simple prayer but what a reversal of our usual thoughts and feelings it contains! Many sensitive and kind people are saying things like ‘I cannot have a happy Christmas while people are suffering in Syria’ or ‘how can we possibly rejoice when fear and terror are all around?’ I think that is to misunderstand what this antiphon explicitly teaches, that God will deal with the darkness, in his own way and his own time. What we have to do is to co-operate — and that is harder than it looks, because, of course, we want to be the doers, we want to be the ones who decide. We can and should rejoice at Christmas because the Son of God has chosen to be our Morning Star, our Light in the darkness, our source of justice and healing. It takes a special kind of courage to turn everything over to God, but that is precisely what we are asked to do.

There is another kind of darkness I should mention, the interior darkness of distress and mental confusion that many also experience at this time of year. It is a prison, a shadow, an all-enveloping gloom that causes much pain and suffering, made all the worse because often it cannot be shared with anyone. Loneliness adds to the sense of misery, and frequently there is a sense of failure, too, because, of course, no one actually wants to be ‘down’ or out of step with the season. It is easy to say that from this too Christ comes to redeeem us, but although that is true, it is not a truth universally experienced.

Sometimes in the early morning, when I go into the oratory to pray, everything is dark, as only a house in the countryside can be dark. Gradually, there is a little glimmer of greyness that marks the beginning of dawn. Then slowly, beautifully, light begins to flood the room until everything is transformed. Even the dust sparkles. Our lives are like that. For some, in this life, there is only darkness and the light will come later; for others, probably the majority, the light begins to shine even now, but uncertainly, by fits and gleams; and for a few, a very few, life is irradiated with sunshine from the very first. What we have to hold to is this: the light will come. ‘His coming is as certain as the dawn.’ Indeed, yes: come, Lord Jesus.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS AND CHRISTMAS NEWSLETTER
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.

Our Christmas Newsletter is available online here: http://eepurl.com/cukCsr. It has a stunning photo of the sun shining on the earth taken from space.

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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, http://bit.ly/1roZnkA

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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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Our Need of Light

I love the fact that we sing the antiphon O Oriens on the shortest day of the year.  In asking the Morning Star to dawn upon us, to scatter the darkness of sin and death and allow the Sun of Justice to shed his rays upon us, we are doing more than praying for a certain event to take place. We are asking to be transformed by the coming of Christ (the Sun of Justice), that we ourselves may live as children of light. It is one of those breath-taking prayers we utter without perhaps stopping to think what we mean.

To live as children of light is more than a liturgical catch-phrase, something we usually think of in an Easter context. It is a whole way of being, a genuinely radical change that we are hoping for in our lives. The contrast between light and darkness is stark, but it is amazing how complacent we can be about the shadowy aspects of our existence. Today would be a good day to think about those areas of our lives which need the healing and transforming light of Christ to shine upon them and seek his grace in the confessional. Sometimes naming what has gone wrong is enough to destroy its power over us. We have nothing to fear. Light is our proper environment.

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O Oriens: light for our darkness

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.

Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:

This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’

A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.

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