In the final days of Advent, the Church recites the Great O Antiphons at Vespers each evening. In this blog extracted from Praying the Great O Antiphons, Katy Carl reflects on the fifth of these O Antiphons: O Oriens.
Morning star, radiance of eternal light, sun of justice, come and enlighten those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Rising Sun, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Reflection on O Oriens
We know that Christ is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We know these words, we have heard them so many times they may land like a bromide – flat and tasteless – but I wonder if it isn’t that the salt has lost its savour, but rather that we have lost our sensitivity to it. I wonder if we don’t tend to hold these words at arm’s length because on some level we feel threatened by their implications. If we truly allow ourselves to accept these realities, to follow the line of logic they lead us down, then no longer can we steer ‘by our lights’ alone. Christ is “the true light, which gives light to everyone,” and at Christmastide he is “coming into the world” (John 1:9) – and while other lights may shine alongside Christ’s light, reflecting it or glowing with brilliance ultimately borrowed from it, we cannot pretend that these other lights can give us sufficient guidance by themselves. The question is not so much: Where is the light coming from? We know the answer already. If we see truth and light, we can be sure that its source is found in Christ, even if the path of refraction remains mysterious to us. The question is, instead: Is our vision sufficiently clear to receive the fullness of the light, or are we harbouring shades that will block it out? “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness?” (Matt 6:22-23). Jesus is, of course, using a metaphor: he does not mean that literal bodily visual disease can possibly block our spiritual vision, but that our inner vision can be obscured by false attachments. The link to yesterday’s antiphon, with its consideration of moral vision and the major obstacle to moral vision posed when we choose to “sit in darkness” (i.e. sin), stands out clearly. If a shadow stands between us and the light, if our out-of-sync attachments to material things and desires block our clarity of thought and therefore our practice of freedom, we will struggle and suffer needlessly until we break free, once again able to see and move untrammelled.
Not unrelated: If you spend abundant time on the internet – and today, that not only describes most of us, it is a comic understatement – you are already aware that, every year around this date, a spate of articles crops up claiming to prove that Christmas is “really” a pagan festival, since it occurs around the time of the winter solstice and bears some historical relationship to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, a wildly debauched midwinter festival, which the cultural celebration of Christmas allegedly replaced.
It’s understandable how the rise of interest in pagan practices attracts many who feel alienated from the natural world and from the cycles of creation. However, we can feel confident that whatever good dwells in these natural cycles also finds its reflection in the liturgical cycles of Christian practice. There is no need to be surprised or scandalised that the timing of Christmas in the Church calendar coincides with the winter solstice, the moment at which light begins to overtake darkness in the natural world. The early Christians were well aware of the symbolism. Though many were former pagans, determined to efface the mistakes of their past, they did not reject this natural symbolism but rather chose consciously to make use of it: to baptise rather than to banish. Remember, grace builds on nature; grace does not destroy nature. Our delighted and longing anticipation of light’s return to the world, far from being suspect, is deeply rooted in our embodied creaturehood, which the authentic mind of the Church honours and values.
For Christ’s light is more than mere natural light – without which, though it is only a created thing, our created bodies could not live. The metaphor is an exquisite one, however, as Christ is the light without which our souls cannot sustain life. He is no mere metonymy for the sun, in the sense of Apollo or Huitzilopochtli or Ra, dwelling somehow ‘in’ the sun in a panentheistic sense. Instead he is the light of the soul, “the light of the world” in spirit and in truth. He is the “splendour of eternal light” and “the sun of justice,” the Word who is God and who is with God from all time, as we read in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. His justice must be linked to his light, as the clarity of its truth is what sets us free.
Translator Jacob Riyeff offers the following meditation, translated from an Old English poem on this antiphon, which invites us to consider how the light of Christ casts aside the work of falsehood, “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” and “fill[s] the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:51, 53):
You illumine all times outside time, resplendent beyond the stars…
So your own works pray in their weakness that you might send the gleaming Sun
and come yourself to illumine those lingering here, covered with smoke and unceasing night, enduring the shadow of death.…
So we give thanks unceasingly for this wonder: that the God of victories would give us himself.
Once more, it is worth noticing what complete nonsense many pagan religions might have found this idea. For humanity’s earliest civilisations, gods were thought to live at an impossible remove from humans. The boundary between the human and the divine could never be crossed. Gods were not thought to be models for human behaviour so much as capricious reflections of human cruelty and lust and aggression. As far as salvation, it came from human effort if it came at all: the heroes who were deified or invited to live on Olympus were, without exception, extraordinary scions of noble families, often said to be half-god themselves in origin, who performed outstanding deeds. The myths held up such acts in contradistinction to the mundane lives most people live of necessity. While later philosophers would resist this movement towards glorifying heroism, preferring instead to lift up acts of virtue more accessible to a wider range of people, the seeds of the übermenschian attitude would remain in the stories, and that attitude continues to affect us to this day.
The ancient model offered the ordinary person basically no hope, except for the Pelagian, bootstrapper’s ‘hope’ Hercules offered the wagon driver in the fable: “The gods help those who help themselves.” Under this dispensation, nothing could be done about those situations so common in human experience in which our effort takes us only so far, in which the basic parameters of our plight either cannot be changed or can only be changed with extreme measures that may or may not improve matters, indeed, that may not even be within our individual power, acting alone. Classical fatalism, for all its exterior beauty, offered no way to make sense of pain, oppression, or betrayal: no respite for situations in which, at least in the short term, the only freedoms left to us are interior.
Christ turned these situations inside out by entering into one of them himself. The “light of the world” entered into the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). An absolute innocent, the one person ever to live who was as clean of heart as an adult as he had been in his earliest childhood, Christ allowed himself to be treated as a criminal. He gave up his health and youth and strength, everything contemporary culture worships, to be assaulted and damaged and destroyed – not out of any twisted belief, such as we sometimes hold in our pain, that those who suffer have somehow earned their ill treatment, but, instead, in the knowledge that humanity was created good and needed to be set free by extreme measures.
His one outstanding moment of self-gift would become faith’s anchor for future generations and would give its own meaning to every act performed in conformity with it. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), not in the sense that he ever chose evil, but instead that he took on the full burden of human evil and, in allowing it to destroy his body, allowed evil itself to self- destruct. He showed us how the power of fear over us can be broken: “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt 10:28); we can count on our access to God’s saving power, as long as we do not consent to acts whose choice would destroy our souls. That Christ chose exactly this kind of suffering, that he refused to perform the evil that would have been the public denial of his own true goodness, may be some comfort to those who have had no choice and no agency in the evil that was done to them by others. The deepest practice of agency people can practice in such situations might be found in standing firm against the idea that the pain they have suffered has somehow corrupted or made them evil, in holding fast instead to the goodness that lives at the deepest levels of their being – for this goodness is surely Christ in them, and it is therefore Christ who has suffered in them, with them, and ultimately for their salvation: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol [hell], or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps 16:10). The deeper the darkness around us, the more we must trust in, and hope for, the returning light.
Image copyright Fr Lawrence Lew OP.
This blog is extracted from our book Praying the Great O Antiphons. In the final days of Advent, the Church recites the Great O Antiphons at Vespers each evening. Katy Carl contemplates each of these antiphons, drawing on art, literature, and Sacred Scripture to show how they tell the story of Jesus Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem.
To learn more about the O Antiphons, order your copy of Praying the Great O Antiphons today.