21 Dec 2014

O Antiphons - 21 December - O Orien


Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ,

21 December


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.

Isaiah 9:2; Luke 1:9; Zech 6: 12-13; Heb 1:3; Malachi 4:2




Advent Reflection
Br Martin Browne OSB

Today’s date is special: December 21st – the Winter Solstice – the day when the sun is at its lowest in the sky… the shortest day of the year… mid-winter’s day.

The ancients often feared nature, and worried that if the days kept getting shorter, and the nights kept getting longer, they’d end up in total darkness and everything and everyone would die. In our age of electric light and central heating, such fears may sound strange, but they were real. And for such cultures, the Winter Solstice was a real turning point. After it, the nights got shorter and the days began getting longer again. The sun, which had been sinking lower and lower for several months, began rising again… The solstice was a sign that God had not abandoned humanity. Spring would soon come and life would continue for another year. As Robert Browning’s Pippa said: God’s in His heaven — All’s right with the world!


We are blessed in Ireland to have the 5,000 year old Newgrange, in County Meath – a Neolithic passage tomb – a huge mound, built over a sixty-foot passageway, leading into three central burial chambers. On December 21st, and only on December 21st, at dawn, the rising sun shines directly along the long passage into the chamber and illuminates the chamber floor… It’s a magnificent, magical moment. Tens of thousands of people apply for the meagre ten or twelve tickets available for space inside the passage tomb on this day each year. What a feat of engineering to have built such a structure so precisely 5,000 years ago!

Why did its builders design Newgrange to do this on the Winter Solstice?  Well, they wanted, in a sense, to trap the sun in the depths of the burial chamber on the shortest day of the year, for fear that it would go away altogether. They didn’t want the light to leave them and abandon them to darkness and death.

It might seem unusual to some people, but the Winter Solstice isn’t just a pagan thing… Christians mark it too! In the Prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, in the antiphon before the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on this day, we pray the ancient text, O Oriens. Just like the Neolithic people trying to trap the sun on the darkest day of the year, the Church cries out:

O Rising Sun, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice.

Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

It’s a powerful and beautiful prayer. Of course, we worship not the physical light, but Jesus as Light of the World. And in the bleakness of mid-winter, we address him as ‘Rising Sun’ and call out to him to save us. It’s a primal, visceral thing. Just as we light candles in our homes, and put up all kinds of fancy (and sometimes crazy!) lights outside, we don’t want to let the darkness beat us. Instinctively, we almost want, as Dylan Thomas famously wrote, to rage against the dying of the light. And of course, on Christmas morning, we will hear those powerful words from Saint John’s Gospel:

What came through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;

the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The darkness has not overcome it… Appropriate words for us to meditate on when we consider the many injustices and areas of conflict in our world today. Powerful words to give us hope when we think of all those who live in poverty, or hunger, or trafficked slavery…

The human instinct towards greed and the will to power is not the last word. God’s vision for his world is for flourishing, and for liberation. The Father’s will is, as Isaiah prophesied, that the people who walked in darkness would see a great light. The fulfilment of that prophecy is the good news of Christmas: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. God is with us! He humbled himself to share in our humanity so that we might come to share in his divinity. That indescribably generous gift is the Christmas present which beats all others. To those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God.

On this important date in our calendars, let’s look at the calendar more closely: The Church celebrates John the Baptist’s birthday on June 24th – the longest day of the year, when the sun is at its brightest. You might recall that John said that he must decrease, and Jesus must increase. Well, every day since June 24th, the days have indeed been ‘decreasing’. They’ve been getting shorter, right up until today. But with the Saviour’s birth, they become longer again, and so John’s desire that he must decrease and Jesus must increase is mirrored in the beautiful rhythm of the Church’s year.

So, why did John the Baptist need to decrease? Because, as the Gospel says: he was not the light, but came to testify to the light. But we can’t consign that role to the past: John the Baptist’s mission is shared by all Christians: we are all called to bear witness to Jesus… to testify to the light. We are called to work and to pray that his Kingdom may come – on earth as it is in heaven. And so the beautiful season of Christmas, soon to dawn on us, is a lot more than carols, gifts, feasting and decorations. It is also a challenge to each of us. It is a challenge to live, speak and act in such a way that we truly are voices crying out in the wilderness of our culture, and bearing witness to Jesus, the Light of the World. It is a challenge to act with honesty, integrity and generosity, so that in the darkness of mid-winter, his light may shine ever more brightly.

The Winter Solstice is a turning point in our planet’s year. If we let it, it can be a turning point for each one of us too. How will you testify to the light this Christmas?


Reflections on the Antiphon:

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