O Radiant Dawn

In the final days of Advent, the church’s daily evening prayer includes a short verse, or antiphon, that highlights one of the scriptural names for the messiah.  Each day’s text begins with “O” followed the designated title, traditionally sung in Latin.  From today through Dec. 23, I’ll post a reflection on the day’s O Antiphon, revised and updated from the series I posted in 2010.  More background information on the O Antiphons is found below each day’s post.

Antiphon of the DayO Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:  Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

3537057_1efce1d8f4On the darkest day of the year, we are reminded that the messiah dispels the night. The idea that “God is light” is ubiquitous in Christianity, but its symbolism has special resonance at this time of year in the northern hemisphere.  We long for light more deeply when it’s less present.  We rejoice to hear that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light!” However, the image of light in today’s O Antiphon is nuanced.  It is not the bright afternoon sun but the radiant dawn, which is easily appreciated in December.  I love to sit in our living room in the early morning and simply watch the sun appear in the horizon.  Gradually it arrives, little by little, yet then it seems to suddenly be there.  How did I miss it? That’s how God comes into the darkness of our fears and hardships whether personal or communal.  Not as a bright summer day, but a spark of light on the horizon of a dark winter morn.  Like the Advent candles, growing in luminosity over the four weeks, we nurture the flame in dawning hope.

Today’s image of light also subtly invites us to consider the meaning and power of darkness.  In my book outlining a spiritual preparation for birth, I write of the nurturing quality of darkness. “Life itself begins in the darkness of the woman’s body where the egg and sperm unite.  Food that sustains our life germinates in the darkness underground after the seeds are planted. Daily and annual cycles of the sun create periods of darkness that allow the earth and its creatures to rest, to lie fallow sometimes. Jesus’ body lay in the darkness of the tomb before he rose on Easter morning.”

PrayerO Radiant Dawn, enlighten us to the wisdom of darkness and light.  Spark us to action for the good of all; lead us to quiet contemplation, each in their time.

Photo by Daveybot, via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

About the O Antiphons
Although the exact origin of the O Antiphons is unknown, they seem to have been in use for more than 1,000 years. Most of us are more familiar with singing all these names for Jesus in the complete verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The church’s daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office, has mostly been observed by religious communities, especially today in monasteries.  It’s the church’s way of marking the holiness of each part of the day.  Historically, as many as eight “hours” were celebrated during a 24-hour period, but Vatican II emphasized morning and evening prayer for all, not just vowed religious.  The format includes psalms, antiphons, scripture readings, and specific prayers like the Our Father and Magnificat.  At vespers from Dec. 17-23, in early evening, the O Antiphon is recited or sung before the Magnificat.

Perhaps because I love words and enjoy discovering their meanings, the O Antiphons have fascinated me for years though I’ve never prayed them in a communal setting.  I first spent time reading the biblical texts from which the O Antiphons are drawn two years ago for this blog and found it very illuminating.  Taken together they present a mosaic of names for God, disparate pieces joined together creating a beautiful whole that is even richer than the individual antiphons suggest.  My studies of Judaism since I originally undertook this project prompt me to acknowledge that the identification of Hebrew texts with Jesus in no way exhausts their meaning or diminishes their significance for the Jewish faith.
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