splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The Light which lighteth the world, its Lord, the key to our freedom is, here, celebrated as the ‘Dayspring’. Isaiah had prophesied that a great light would come to the people who dwelt in darkness (9:2), and in this Antiphon, sung on the shortest day in the Western hemisphere, it is appropriate that we celebrate the coming of the ‘Morning Star’ or, as the translators of Luke 1:78 for the King James Bible put it even more poetically, ‘the dayspring from on high’. (A side note would wonder who, with any ear for language, would translate this as ‘sunrise’? The KJV might not be the most accurate translation, but it is by far the most sonorous in its use of English, and there are times, and this is one of them, when one wonders why modern translators cannot simply stop messing around and stick with an English version which captures something more than the plain meaning?
There is a sense of hope here which is central to the Christian message: even in the deepest darkness there is Light. As we so often go to work and come home in darkness at this time of the year, and as the light is so scarce, it often makes people ill; a want of light can do that. It is the want of the Light which makes us spiritually sick. The Light has come, we need it, but we do not see it; how can this be? How can it be the case that mankind so readily rejects the source of its salvation? It is all too hard for us. We are busy, we are too clever to believe in ‘bronze age myths’, we know better. Yet for all our vaunted wisdom, are we one iota happier?
We know that life will end. We all live under a sentence of death. We know not why we were born, or why we live, but since die we must, we eat, drink and make merry – mankind cannot bear too much reality. Rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, all must pass into the darkness. There is no comfort. Old age, General de Gaulle once wrote, is a ‘shipwreck’, and yet to that we must all come – unless we die first. It takes a certain sort of wisdom to construct such a paradigm of existence: purposeless and pointless. As far back as we can trace, mankind has been a worshipping entity – and it is no accident that the most ancient traces of worship we have show the importance of the sun. Mankind has known by instinct that light matters, and indeed, that light is life. Here it intuited what God would tell us through Scripture, that the first words spoken by the Word were ‘let there be light’. There is no darkness so deep that mankind has not intuitively reached out for something to alleviate it.
He is there. He is always there. If we feel He is not, then it is us, not Him, who is not there. On this, the shortest and darkest day of the year, this O Antiphon to the dayspring from on high seems apt.
Lord, lead us to your light and away from the darkness our fallen nature craves.