splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
splendor of light eternal and sun of justice:
Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
O Antiphon, December 21
Reflection – So right on cue with the winter solstice we have the triumphant cry ‘O Dawn!’ As the world is in its darkest hour (well, the northern hemisphere at least), we proclaim the coming of the light and the end of the night, of every night, the rising of the morning star and the triumphant sun.
OK, so it’s a bit obvious. So what? The Church in its liturgy is never afraid to be a little obvious, even a little trite at times. We’re trying to appeal to a broad audience, you might say (that whole ‘catholic’ business, eh?).
Meanwhile we have these great lumbering symbols just lying around wanting to be used. Darkness. Night. Sunrise. Morning. All events that occur, by definition, every day, and that have nonetheless surprising power to speak to us of the spiritual life and its underlying structure.
‘Evening came and morning came’, the first day. Even before sun and moon were created, the first thing was light shining in the darkness. It is the fundamental created disjunction. Light is being, the first created thing, and darkness then is non-being, symbol of what is not. ‘And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.’
This is the deep point, isn’t it? That being is stronger than non-being. What is prevails over what is not. Life stronger than death, and good stronger than evil. But that takes some believing, doesn’t it? It’s not exactly crystalline in this world of ours that being, life, and goodness are always stronger. Non-being, darkness, and evil sure seem to get their licks in, sure seem to win a few rounds here and there.
It is really no great wonder that metaphysical dualism has always hung around the great human questions about the world. The philosophical idea that there are two great and roughly equal principles—light/goodness/spirit and dark/evil/matter—that are in constant cosmic struggle is an appealing, even obvious answer to what we see all around us every day, even in the nightly setting of the sun, let alone in all the horrors of violence and death that are our human tragic lot.
But this is not our Christian answer. We hold that Light Itself, not the created good of light, but the Uncreated Light of the Trinity, has come into the world and shines in the uttermost darkness of it. Jesus comes into the world, and so there is always light, even in the grimmest and most desperate situations. A glimmer of light, a trace perhaps, but enough to bear the one sitting in darkness towards the kingdom of all light.
And yet… well, we believe this, and we do believe in Christmas and the Incarnation and the Redemption… and… of course we believe all that. Of course we do. But, yet, we cry out, ‘Come!’ I think it is the common experience of all people that the darkness can get mighty dark yet, that evil and pain and fear can have their seasons in all our lives, Jesus or no Jesus, that life can get very deathly and shadowy no matter how hard we try to stay in life and light.
And so we cry out ‘Come!’ These O Antiphons are remarkable prayers, even or maybe especially when they are very simple, obvious prayers. A light has shone in the darkness—Jesus—and those who have faith in him know that light to be real and splendid and beautiful. But we need more of it, please! ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ The great ‘prayer’ of Oliver Twist is appropriate here. The light is good, Father, but we need more, please!
Too many sit in darkness still; the shadow of death is cast too long yet. And so we pray, on this murky winter solstice, for the true light to come and set all shadows to flight and enlighten the minds and hearts of all men and women in the truth and the love that sets us free. Come, Lord Jesus.