Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Oriens

Today’s readings

I was with some friends the other night and we watched the Patrick Stewart version of “A Christmas Carol.”  When I watched it this time, I was really struck by the themes of light and darkness that Charles Dickens wrote into the story.  At the beginning, the setting is a very dark London, which at that time was certainly polluted with a lot of coal smog.  The opening settings are at night, and so there is a whole lot of darkness as the story begins.  Then, as this particular movie portrayed it, the three haunting spirits showed progressively less light as the story goes along.  The first spirit is so bright that he practically blinds Mr. Scrooge, and at the end of their time together, Scrooge actually snuffs him out with a bucket.  The second spirit is not quite so bright, but does appear with a torch to light the way.  By the end of their time together, the second spirit has grown old and is dying out.  Finally, the third spirit appears and is darkness itself.  All you can even see of him are two haunting, glowing eyes.

The significance of that light and darkness really struck me, because, who hasn’t noticed that there is a lot more darkness this time of year?  I know a lot of people who get depressed this time of year.  Probably you do too – maybe you’re even one of them.  Many people are missing loved ones who are far away from home, or who have passed away.  Some of my friends have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and so they are depressed when we don’t see the sun as much on cloudy day, or when it gets dark so early as it does during this time.  Some people also look back on another year almost finished, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been.  And if there is any reason for being a little depressed at this time of year, it often seems like the joy that other people are experiencing during the Christmas season makes the pain even worse.

So for whatever reason, many of us experience darkness during this season, when so many seem to be rejoicing in light.  In essence, that’s what Advent is all about; that’s what we have been celebrating these past few weeks.  The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that, the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  The prophet Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].”  Our reading of the Annunciation in today’s Gospel is a celebration of that light breaking through our darkness:  “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”  “Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God!”  “May it be done to me according to your word!”

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world.  We do that in symbolic ways: the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath symbolizes the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior.  But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory.  We are here at Mass every week to celebrate that the darkness has not overcome the bright light of Christ in our world.  Our God has become one of us, taking our form, healing our brokenness, redeeming our sinfulness and leading us to eternal life in his kingdom of light.

The incarnation of Christ, which we’ll celebrate in just a few short days, is perhaps the central mystery of our faith.  If we don’t have the incarnation – God taking flesh and dwelling among us – then we never have the Cross, we never have the Resurrection, and we never have eternal life.  Indeed the incarnation is such a beacon of hope, such a beautiful, central mystery, that the mere mention of us calls us to bow in adoration and gratitude for the grace we have been given.

Whenever we do something in the Mass, there’s a reason for it, and it often tells us something about what we believe.  That is why we bow when, during the Creed, we pray: “by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  In fact, on Christmas, we’re actually supposed to genuflect at those words.

And so, without denying that there is darkness, we boldly proclaim that there’s a little more light today.  The dark injustices of our world are evident; wars rage, terrorism breaks our peacefulness, greed brings recession, crime proliferates.  But it does not overcome: there’s a little more light today.  The darkness of our sin cannot be denied: lack of prayer leads us further away from God, self-interest clouds our relationships and weakens our discipleship.  But it does not overcome: there’s a little more light today.

The light comes from one and only one place: Jesus Christ.  He is the one who banishes our darkness and bathes the world in the glory of his wonderful light.  His coming two thousand years ago changed the course of our history.  His coming again will bring all of creation to completion in the light of God’s everlasting kingdom.

Each of the days from December 17th through the 23rd has a specific antiphon assigned to it; these are called the “O Antiphons” and they speak of a special title of Jesus.  Today’s “O Antiphon” is “O Oriens” which is translated “O Radiant Dawn” or “O Morning Star” or “O Dayspring.” Corresponding to the day’s “O Antiphon” is the antiphon for evening prayer, and that antiphon today is this: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

In addition, a verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” corresponds to the daily “O Antiphon.” Today’s verse speaks of the light that is to come to us:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

And the Liturgy for Christmas states emphatically that there is more light because of the birth of Jesus.  The preface to the Eucharistic prayer says, “In the wonder of the incarnation, your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory.  In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

In these final days of Advent, we need to be proclaiming that there is more light today.  We need to show all the world that new and radiant vision of God’s glory.  The Gospel of John wraps this up for us very nicely: “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

At the end of the story, Mr. Scrooge is a changed man.  And the setting has changed too: he realizes that all of the spirits visited him in that one very dark night, and as he throws open the shutters, he is awakened by the bright light of Christmas morning.  He then sets about making things right with Bob Cratchit, his nephew Fred, and anyone he can find.  There is a lot more light for Scrooge on that wonderful Christmas morning.  As his nephew says at the end of the story: “and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

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