O Oriens

Christ shining at his transfiguration.

Christ shining at his transfiguration.

O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Sun of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

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

The fifth of the O Antiphons sung in the days leading up to Christmas Eve is O Oriens. The Latin oriens can be translated many different ways — sunrise, dawn of the east, morning star, radiant dawn — but I prefer dayspring. There’s a brightness to that word, and a freshness. As with a spring of water, you get the sense of a cool, thirst-quenching refreshment, but you simultaneously have images of fiery rays of golden-white light. It’s a good, evocative, poetic word, and a noble title.

There are three things I want to reflect on regarding this title for Christ. The words of this antiphon and the scriptures from which it’s composed bear these points out. 1) Christ is light and is opposed to darkness; 2) the fire of day paradoxically brings both healing and destruction; 3) dawn inherently “breaks”.

1) One of the most obvious and foundational images for what Jesus Christ means to this world is light. Light has served as a metaphor for learning, knowledge, and truth for maybe every culture throughout the world, and so it naturally has been applied to Christ whom Christians understand to be not merely true, but Truth as such. The light of Christ even breaks the bounds of metaphor in accounts like the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-2, depicted above) and St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) where the light is actually perceptible. But if light, metaphorically speaking, is knowledge and truth, then darkness is ignorance, falsehood, idiocy, and foolishness. If light means life and growth, darkness means withering and death. Christ said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). As the Dayspring, the light of Christ shines on those who otherwise sat “in darkness” and in the “shadow of death” (phrases used repeatedly in the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles).

2) But as we also learn from the scriptures (and from life experience), not all things prefer the light. In keeping with the metaphor, to those things which prefer the shameful cover of darkness the light is injurious and painful. For those who look for the light, who belong to the light, for them the light is life. “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thes 5:5). But for those who prefer darkness over light, that is, ultimately death over life, for them the light is their doom. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4). Just as the blessed Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is life-giving for some, for those who receive it with no humility or repentance, they eat and drink condemnation on themselves, incurring spiritual and physical maladies (1 Cor 11:29-30). So the Dayspring will bring torturous, destructive heat to those who, of their own accord, forsake their share in the gift of existence bestowed by Existence himself, but for those who desire life, the Dayspring will recreate them: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the Sun of justice shall rise with healing in his wings” (Mal 4:1-2a).

3) So far we’ve observed what the Dayspring is and what the Dayspring does, but there’s still the matter of how the Dayspring does it. It’s the nature of the dawn to “break” upon a darkened world, as a tide swelling, mysteriously, by unmeasurable yet relentlessly multiplying degrees. Before the first ray actually falls upon the earth, the soft spread of early reds and oranges radiate up into the cold, dark sky, portending the arrival of the sun. These are the prophets of old projecting what diffuse light they could onto the screen of murky futurity. At the moment of the dawn, the birds have begun to sing their songs in welcome of the day. These are the Gospel canticles sung by Mary (Lk 1:46-55), Zachariah (Lk 1:68-79), and Simeon (Lk 2:29-32), and the chorus of angels singing their Gloria. Then, the sun itself shines directly into the world for the first time since the night. At precisely what point on the horizon it will first break is hard to know until it does. Likewise, the birth of Christ was out of the way and missed by nearly everyone except the few who knew where to look. As the light begins to spread into the world, more and more shadows disappear and the realm of darkness diminishes. The prince of the air (Eph 2:2) will conjure dark clouds, though, hiding the sun and creating the illusion that the world still belongs to the night. These clouds will at some point be totally burned away, however, as will all other shadows, specters, and things of the night.

So, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14). “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isa 60:1). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light dawned” (Isa 9:2). “Because of the tender mercy of our God, the Dayspring from on high shall visit us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:78-79a).

Other Great O Antiphons

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