LATIN: O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.
ENGLISH: O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Here are a few references from Scripture:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall. (Malachi 4:2)
Through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)
Today is the shortest day of the year and longest night of the year: the winter solstice. Yet today’s antiphon is O Radiant Dawn. During this, the darkest day of the year, the Church looks out from the darkness to the source of all life and light and hope. As if to illustrate this are two of my favorite passages from Scripture are from my favorite Gospel, the Gospel of St. John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be 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. (John 1:1-4)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (John 3:16-21)
At Holy Mass of the ancient Church, Christians would face “East”, at least symbolically, so that they could greet the coming of the Savior, both in the consecration of the bread and wine and in the expectation of the glorious return of the King of Creation.
But not just during the times of the early Church 2,000 years ago. Man’s desire for a Savior, a Redeemer who is capable of ransoming from the darkness of our sins and from the blinding and numbing wound of ignorance from which we all suffer goes further back.
There is an ancient site in Ireland called Newgrange that contains what archeologists say is a passage tomb: a place to bury their dead. This tomb is designed so that
At dawn, from December 19th to 23rd, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.
Pre-Christian pagan civilizations, too, sought light in the darkness. The desire for and knowledge of God is in our DNA. He is written on the human heart.
The fifth O Antiphon is referred to in the following verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel:
Veni, Veni O Oriens, solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas, dirasque mortis tenebras.
O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.