Tuesday, December 21, 2010

O Antiphons- O Oriens

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

In this installment, our theme is light which may strike some of my readers as worth a yawn, but little more. Surely, at this time of year, this is a hardly a controversial one. Almost every religious (and many non-religious ones, while we're at it) tradition does something with light this time of year. So, we get various festivals of light in Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Hinduism as well as our own Western tendency to fix lights to anything which will support them. Given that these festivals of light occur at the time of year when the days are the shortest, we should be hardly shocked by their occurrence. Light symbolizes to us safety and hope, while darkness symbolizes danger and despair. The coming of the dawn, any dawn, offers us possibilities for life, so extending that dawn into the night is a natural kind of thing to do this time of year.

That said, what makes this antiphon's stress on light different than these festivals of light? Perhaps it is that Jesus identified Himself as the light of the world and promises that "those who follow me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8,12). This declaration is as much code for the resurrection as it is in guidance for today. Still, we have to remember that Jesus' audience didn't believe him and, in fact, challenged him to provide witnesses to corroborate his statement. Nor is this assertion any more accepted today as in Jesus' day. We are living in a post-Christian age and it is difficult not to see that those who identify with Christianity is significantly less than it was even a generation or two ago. So, all this begs the question: how do we know that Jesus is the light of the world.

Ultimately, we have to begin with the demand of the Pharisees for witnesses. When we do that and begin to look for corroboration of Jesus' claims, we find witnesses, beginning with the prophets, suffering in long exile and waiting for the dawn of God's return to His people. Isaiah declared to the exiles in Babylon that, as the coming righteous king (identified by Christians as Jesus- see tomorrow's entry for why) comes "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them light has shined (Isaiah, 9,2). Later, Isaiah describes in similar terms what the results of a return to justice as worship, a theme dear to Jesus' preaching, would be: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly" Or consider Malachi, who declares that, on the day of the Lord, "for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness hsall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall...: (Malachi 4,2).

Nor are the witnesses limited to the long-dead prophets. Even in Jesus' own day, there were two significant witnesses to Jesus' light to the world. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, declared on the birth of his son that the days which his son would prepare the way for "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who site in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1,78-79). No wonder John is described by the Gospel of John as "a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world;" (John 1,6-9) In each of these cases, the coming of the light dispels a long period of darkness, despair and exile. In each of these cases, there is a long wait by those who follow God, followed by the joy of the returning dawn, the returning light which is symbolic of the joyful return of God into the life of Israel.

Jesus, by declaring Himself the light of the world is saying to the faithful Jews of his era that the wait is over, dawn is breaking and the light of God is here. It is a bold claim and one can sympathizes with the Pharisees, who want to see some proof of it. We do feel safer when we're sure that other people see something, but, really, with light, either you see it or you don't. Many people in Jesus' day saw the light of God in Jesus; many did not. Nothing much has changed there. Yet, the irony is that the Pharisees demand for witnesses had already been satisfied through the prophets, through Zechariah and, especially, by John, their contemporaries, both conveniently dead. They simply failed to understand what they were trying to say.

Yet, we are not to stop there. Jesus was not, as it were, just another flash in the pan- a brief, glorious eruption of hope, ending in the inevitable returning darkness of despair. Jesus' life on this earth was brief, but, through his death and resurrection, its consequences echo through the centuries and have started us on another long period of waiting for the light. Like many themes in these antiphons, Isaiah anticipates this second return of the light, when he describes the effect of gathering of the remnant of Israel:

"The sun shall no longer be your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down
or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light
and your days of mourning shall be ended."

Here, the restoration of Israel will have fundamental natural effects on the world. We have already seen this kind of redemption of nature in our O Antiphons and, while taking this absolutely literally has its risks, we should be alert to the boldness of what Isaiah is saying here. He is not merely talking about the restoration of a nation, but rather a restoration of the entire world through the restoration of Israel. In this sense, he anticipates a theme in the very Christian book, Revelation which depicts the final battle against evil, sin and death as a cosmic battle with cosmic consequences which culminate in the restoration of God's creation. Thus, in the closing of Revelation, Jesus declares himself the Morning Star- the bright star (well, yes, planet- Venus) which anticipates the coming of the day (Revelation 22,16). This establishes the relationship between the two incarnations of Christ; the first serving as the Morning Star for the final coming of the light in the second.

And what will be the result of that Coming? We will see the establishment of the new City of God, the New Jerusalem, to which all faithful people will return to live with God. Yet, it is striking that this vision of the New Jerusalem includes light imagery which is already familiar from the passage in Isaiah which we quoted in the previous paragraph:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. (Revelation 21,22-26)

Here, again, we see the cosmic effect that the victory of God will have. This vision of the New Jerusalem serves as the climax and purpose for the cosmic struggle depicted in Revelation. The final result of this struggle is to see the return of God to fellowship with humanity and his creation. The most clear physical evidence of this return is the Glory of God which will outshine even the mightiest lights of the natural world, descending upon this new city. This is the same Glory of God which so terrified the Israelites near Mt. Sinai and the same Glory which so astonished the disciples in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. This light is the light which, finally and forever, dispel the darkness and gloom of those who live in the darkness of death. Jesus, ultimately, is the first breaking of dawn of that ever-lasting day of God.

Veni, Veni O Oriens, solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas, dirasque mortis tenebras.

(6) O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death's dark shadow put to flight

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