O Antiphon for Dec. 21
I realize that most modern renderings have "O Rising Dawn", but
indulge me in this one. As a lover of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I vastly
prefer the much more poetic "O Dayspring" And besides, who said
translation must be pedestrian to be relevant? (It often seems
someone must have....) "Daypsring" also carries the hopeful connotation of
Spring-to-come, of Resurrection, a powerful thought on the first day of
"O Dayspring, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come
and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death."
I wonder if the appearance of today's sun image landed on the winter
solstice accidentally. Given the Middle Ages' fascination with such
things, one would suspect it was deliberate choice. Just as the
natural sun ebbs to it weakest point, the Sun of Justice Who shall
never diminish, is proclaimed. The images today, while reflected in
both Old and New Testaments are more from nature than those of the
Jesus calls Himself the Light and the Life. Surely the sun gives
both, and so, here, does the Sun of Justice. We could not live without
the sun; our planet would be a barren, frozen wasteland without it.
The image of dawn, of the dayspring, holds a further message: the sun
at noon is at its peak of light and heat, but the gentler sun of both
rising and setting is not only softer and less extreme, but floods
the sky and the earth with its lovelier color and majesty. This is yet
repetition of the theme of gentleness/strength.
The reference to the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:1-2) contrasts two
experiences of the Messianic power "glowing like a furnace." For the wicked,
it will burn them like chaff, but for those who fear God's name, "the sun of
righteousness shall rise with healing." Jesus' power and majesty and
strength are truly a balm to us.
Naturally, to Christian (and especially Benedictine!) ears, the most
obvious connections here will be those of the Benedictus, the
Canticle of Zachary in Luke 1:78-79, the "Oriens ex alto", the
dayspring from on high, which shall burst forth and shine on all
those "who sit in darkness and the shadow of death." The message
today is the end of darkness, the end of shadow, the end of death.
The Messiah, the Sun of Righteousness has dispelled them all.
The Radiance of the Light eternal is found in Hebrews 1:3 as an
attribute of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. My favorite
translation, the New English Bible, renders it thus: "...the Son Who
is the effulgence of God's splendour and the stamp of God's being and
sustains the universe by His word of power." The Son is, as we say in
the Creed, truly "Light from Light." He would not have to do anything
to end the world, He would have to STOP doing something, stop willing
it and us, stop sustaining it. The creation is the daily and ever
present act of the Son, something ongoing in His will maintaining all
Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death are not just a
group of outsiders. There are many such corners of gloom in our own
souls, to which we frequently retire for a holiday from the struggles
of grace. Today we invite the Sun to illuminate even those recesses,
to leave us no place to hide from Him in the damp and chill of
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"O King of the nations [Gentiles] and Desired of all, You are the
cornerstone that binds two into one: Come, and save humankind whom
You formed out of clay."
The antiphons before today were heavily Jewish in their Messianic
content and this one begins that way, but then presents a radical
stumbling to Israel's usual position. The Jews of Jesus' time were not
exactly noted for rabid ecumenism. Their customary ecumenical stance was, alas,
rather closely akin to that of: "Someday
they'll all come crawling and groveling to us on OUR terms."
No problem for the Jews with "King of nations" (Jer. 10:7) or the
Desired of all, (Hag.2:8) these fit the old pattern comfortably.
There is even a cornerstone tradition in Isaiah 28:16, but "as the
foundation of Sion," not a union with all peoples. The jarring note
is in "the cornerstone that binds the two into one." This is
definitely not the way Israel expected the Gentiles to "wake up and
get with it." This is God Himself being the binder, even part of the
bond, the very cause of unity. This is that perfect union which does
not make those united feel smaller or less, because God Himself is
thrown into the breach of union.
Just as Christ has broken down the walls dividing us from the Father,
so is He also the cause and source of our unity with all humanity.
This is very Pauline, expressed in both Eph.2:14 and Gal.3:29 as
Christ being the peace between Jew and Gentile. That wall, humanly
speaking, between Jew and Gentile was very high. Jews could not eat
with Gentiles, many civil observances of foreign lands were
proscribed for them and their refusal to follow these was a source of
frequent persecution. In Mosaic law, Jewish nationality was conferred
by birth from a Jewish mother. The children of a Jewish man and a non-
Jewish wife would not even be Jews, a fact still true today.
The quote from Galatians has further applications to human
unity: "There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male
and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus. But if you
thus belong to Christ, you are the issue of Abraham and so heirs by
promise." Here we see not only the wall dividing Jew and Gentile torn
down, but even the customary way of becoming Jews and heirs to the
promise overthrown. No Jewish male could confer birth membership in Israel.
It travelled through the mother. St. Paul, writing about Christ, makes it clear that He unites
all in a new dispensation, one which supersedes the old.
The Old Israel cherishes promises and waits for their fulfillment.
The New Israel, in its delight that the Messiah has come, often
forgets that it, too, must wait for the fulfillment of the promise
and that the waiting is terrible, painful frustration. No one can
look at the quote from Galatians and smugly assume that we are there.
Anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, religious hatreds,
misogyny and misandry color our world.
Hate crimes fill the news all too often. (Once would be too often...)
We have made a stab at slave and free, but little more than that.
What we miss is that these changes have already been effected,
perfectly, in Christ. The unity, the equality, promises are here:
they are REAL. All that impedes their full realization is just that:
their "real-ization" and discovery in our human hearts. The way to
bring about the promise is to live as if it were already here:
because it is! If every person did that, even to their own personal
cost and detriment, you would see changes in our world and churches
Lastly, there is a reality check that is not too palatable to our
modern ears, the reminder that we were formed out of clay. Several
decades of self-affirming pop psychology in the late 20th century may
have done their work a bit too well in some of us. The Latin "limus"
which is here rather flatteringly rendered as "clay" has the more
common sense of "mud, slime, or mire." Even if we now realize that
the creation of humanity was not a literal case of God making patty-
cake with clay, the message here is quite clear. The most cursory
examination of conscience will reveal how close to our origins we can
often slip. (You potters out there should pardon the pun...)
If this reflection may have inflamed a few, please do not blame Abbot
Lawrence. Most of this was me, after reading Parsch.
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Since the 24th is First Vespers of Christmas, actually beginning the
solemnity, today's antiphon is the last of the great O Antiphons. The
Roman Church formerly made more extensive use of the Jewish custom of
beginning feasts the night before, spanning sunset to sunset, but now
reserves that practice for Sundays and solemnities. Too bad, in a
way. First Vespers of many lesser feasts used to be a joy, and it was
a further connection to our Jewish roots.
A bit of trivia, for which I am indebted to Joyce, who learned it in a
college in the 50's. If you take the first letters of the second words (after
the initial O,) which begin each antiphon, you get the acronym: SARCORE.
Read backwards, on Dec. 24, that spells "Ero cras" Latin for "Tomorrow I
will be (there)".
Now some monastic of the Middle Ages must have had a lot of time on his (or
hands to figure that one out.
"O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of Nations and their
Savior: come, and save us, O Lord our God!"
Emmanuel- God with us- this was a radical fulfillment of the
Messianic prophecies which the Jews had never dreamed would happen: a
divine Messiah. Though the promises all refer to and fit Jesus, the
Messiah expected by the Israelites was not divine. To their
reasoning, none could be literally divine, really the Son of God.
Their expectation of a saving ruler did not assume that God would
share His very nature and essence with the Anointed One.
Emmanuel reflects an entirely Christian and entirely new theology,
one of Incarnation and an immanence hitherto unknown. God with us,
sharing every hardship of humanity in His own flesh, dwelling not in
a Temple spiritually, but as flesh and blood among humanity, wishing
to remain with us until the end of time. This is a dramatic contrast
to the affection, yet distance with which the Lord was regarded in
the Old Testament.
Emmanuel- God with us- it finally springs the liturgical construct
of "waiting" all these weeks and admits that we knew He was there all
along. Advent has that flavor, of a pretended waiting for Him Whom we
know to have already arrived. We place ourselves in the shoes of
those who had Him not in order to better appreciate Him Whom we have
had all along.
We hail Christ as King and Lawgiver (Isaiah 32:22,) and echo the
dying words of Jacob in Gen. 49:10, " The scepter will not pass from
Judah, nor a ruler from his thigh, till He comes that is to be sent.
He is the expectation of the nations." We ask Him to save us. The
Latin "Salva" , the imperative form of "to save," is related
to "salus", health, wholeness. We are asking for a holistic well-
being of mind, soul and body when we thus ask to be saved. We
are, in fact, asking to finally be made perfect, fully whole and sound,
something only God can do!
Lastly, we no longer beat around the bush, (burning or otherwise!) We
come right out and directly call Jesus "our Lord and our God." It is
the crowning acclamation of faith to a long season of expectation.
A blessed late Advent and Christmas to you all. I have enjoyed
sharing these with you because I truly feel they are the best poetry
left in the liturgy of the West, even beating out the now pared-down
Exultet at Easter!
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