O Oriens: Meditations on the O Antiphons

Travel, jet lag, and holiday activities predictably demolished my plans to keep up with Advent 2014. So now, after Epiphany, I resume my series on the O Antiphons.

The fifth O Antiphon is to the Rising Dawn.

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

O rising one, splendor of eternal light,
and sun of justice:
come, and illuminate those sitting in darkness,
and the shadow of death.

This antiphon shows Christ to be light and enlightener. O Clavis David showed us his descent. Now the image reverses, and we see that the descent of Christ in the incarnation is also an ascent.

The Latin oriens is the root of our word “oriental.” It is literally “rising [one],” usually indicating the east, the dawn, or the rising sun. Nevertheless, there is a tradition of rendering oriens here “morning star,” which is within the range of possible meanings, as in the Old English poem based on this antiphon, Eala earendel. The morning star, Venus, is the harbinger of the dawn; Christ takes this name for himself in Revelation 22:16 (see also 2 Peter 1:19 and Revelation 2:28).

When this antiphon was sung, given the traditional orientation of Christian churches, the congregants would be facing east, toward the altar and toward the morning. The author mines the Old Testament imagery of divine light shining in the darkness. The second line references Malachi 4:2‘s “sun of righteousness,” which also features in the popular Wesley hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The end of this antiphon is the same as the previous one, affirming that salvation is come to “those sitting in darkness, and the shadow of death.” The luminous descent of the Ancient of Days to the lowest parts of creation was the luminous ascent of the Son of Man over all the earth.

Christ as Ancient of Days, from a medieval Georgian fresco

St. Gregory the Great pointed out in his Moralia in Job that dawn is not yet full day. It is a beginning of day, but has not yet dispelled all darkness. Such is the kingdom of God in these last days: present, and not yet. Christ is risen with healing; in him is the new world, but the world has not yet been renewed. That time is coming, when it shall not be in the light of faith but in full day that we shall walk.

This aspect of poetic meaning is easily transferred to Venus as morning star, which, though light itself (and that light of the sun), warns us of the greater light of the coming dawn. The Venerable Bede, in a quote later inscribed over his tomb, wrote, “Christ is the morning star who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.” The sun is coming. Christ Oriens is Christ as hope.

This feature of Christ’s ministry is most clearly imaged in the resurrection. As the sunrise is a symbol of birth, it is also a symbol of rebirth. The sun which was darkened at the crucifixion is with us again. The light breaks from the tomb as from the womb and fills the whole world. Christmas must always look forward to Easter.

That is the lesson of this antiphon. At the turn of winter we are given a promise of spring. This feast anticipates the greater, Paschal feast where Christ, “splendor of eternal light,” having reached the uttermost depths of darkness and freed the captives of death, begins an ascent that will culminate at the right hand of the Father.

The new age has dawned, that of the “rising one.” We who live in darkness are illuminated by the eschatological light rising from Bethlehem, which in the coming age will be our only light, filling all things (Rev 21:23-24).

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