splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
Splendor of Eternal Light
and Sun of Justice:
come and illuminate those sitting in darkness
and the shadow of death.
Happy first day of Summer to our Southern Hemisphere readers; Happy first day of Winter to our readers in the North! Today’s O Antiphon relates directly to the experience of the Solstice, especially — but perhaps not exclusively — north of the equator.
O Oriens! The antiphon on the Magnificat for today’s Vespers conjures images not of the evening, but of the morning. As a noun, today’s “O” is Daybreak, Dawn, Sunrise and Morning Star; as a verbal participle it is rising, originating, creating and birthing. Both grammatical forms suggest powerful imagery as we approach the feast of the Nativity of the Lord.
All of the phrases in today’s antiphon are historically rooted in scripture, though for the invocation O Oriens, critical biblical scholarship invites us to re-think its biblical associations. One often sees Zechariah 6:12 cited as a source for this antiphon. In the “Old” Vulgate Bible of Saint Jerome, that text reads: et loqueris ad eum dicens haec ait Dominus exercituum dicens ecce vir Oriens nomen eius et subter eum orietur et aedificabit templum Domino, which the Douay-Rheims translation more-or-less accurately renders, “And thou shalt speak to him, saying: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, saying: Behold a man, The Orient [East, Dawning] is his name: and under him shall he spring up, and shall build a temple to the Lord.” The Nova Vulgata, however, supplies the text et loqueris ad eum dicens: Haec ait Dominus exercituum dicens: Ecce vir, Germen nomen eius; et in loco suo aliquid germinabit et aedificabit templum Domini. Modern English bibles like the New Revised Standard Version, following critical readings of the Hebrew text, do similarly: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord.” So while the composer(s) of the antiphon undoubtedly had the older text in mind, this reference to “Branch” suggests that this text might better be related in the future to the antiphon for December 19, O Radix Iesse.
Of course, the less disputable and more relevant pericope comes from within the Benedictus, the Morning Canticle, at Luke 1:78 —
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us. . .
“Splendor of Eternal Light” derives from the Latin of Hebrews 1:3; “Sun of Justice” from Malachi 4:2; and the reference in the petition to “those that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death” is familiar also from the Benedictus at Luke 1:79, and also from Isaiah 9:2.
A Turning Point in the Natural Year
For those who for whom the past few weeks have marked the gradual decrease in daylight hours, today’s Solstice comes as a turning point. It is the beginning of the slow march toward Springtime and Easter. Today’s antiphon, situated on the Solstice, is a liturgical recognition of the change of season: the dawning of a new day, the gradual increasing of the daylight hours, the movement from the “shadow of death” toward the light of life.
For those in the Southern Hemisphere, of course, the slow march toward winter begins again today. Today’s antiphon comes as a promise that, however dark earths seasons may become, light will indeed increase again in time, the cycle repeating itself through the changing seasons, until that “dawn from on high will break upon us” once and for all.
This antiphon also suggests a challenge, by way of a certain anticipated eschatology. Note the connection between the Dawning or Daybreak and the Sun of Justice — “the sun of righteousness” that “shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Mal 4:2). The connection between the coming of the light and the power of healing (here meaning the sort of healing that comes with the Reign of God — wholeness, peace and security, well-being) is found elsewhere in Scripture. Its revelation follows upon our doing of justice, our participation in the making the Reign of God a present reality for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and the outcast:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
(Isaiah 58:6-8, NRSV)
Something to Sing About
In addition to their use as the Magnificat Antiphons at Vespers, the O Antiphons have been a great stimulus to poets and hymnographers through the centuries. These familiar lines from Philip Nicolai’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, often sung as an Epiphany hymn, capitalize on the scriptures behind both O Oriens and O Radix Iesse:
O Morning Star, how fair and bright!
Thou beamest forth in truth and light,
O Sovereign meek and lowly!
Thou Root of Jesse, David’s Son,
My Lord and Master, Thou hast won
My heart to serve Thee solely!
Thou art holy,
Fair and glorious, all victorious, rich in blessing
Rule and might over all possessing.
(English by Catherine Winkworth, Chorale Book for England, 1863.)
Henry Burton, writing in 1900, penned the Advent Hymn “Break Day of God, Oh Break,” with references to both the Morning Star and the Sun of Righteousness:
Break, day of God, Oh break!
The night has lingered long;
Our hearts with sighing wake,
We weep for sin and wrong:
O Bright and Morning Star, draw near;
O Sun of Righteousness, appear.
Charles Wesley’s 1740 Hymns and Spiritual Songs includes these famous lines, often sung at Morning Prayer throughout the year:
Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.
Finally, Christian von Rosenroth’s 1664 hymn, Morgen glanz der Ewigkeit, here in the masterful translation of Catherine Winkworth, seems very much like an extended meditation on O Oriens:
Dayspring of eternity!
Hide no more Thy radiant dawning!
Light from light’s exhaustless sea,
Shine on us afresh this morning!
And dispel with glorious might
All our night.
[. . .]
Through this dark and tearful place
Never be Thy light denied us.
O Thou glorious Sun of grace,
To yon world of gladness guide us,
When to joys that never end
Ah! Thou Dayspring from on high
Grant that at Thy next appearing
We who in the graves do lie
May arise, Thy summons hearing,
And rejoice in our new life,
Far from strife.
Light us to those heavenly spheres,
Sun of grace, in glory shrouded;
Lead us through this vale of tears
To the land whose days unclouded,
Purest joy, and perfect peace
Whatever chant or hymn you find yourself singing today, enjoy the increasing of the light, the promised dawning of the coming Reign of God, and the healing power that flows forth whenever God’s will is done on earth in loving service to those in need.