‘Oriens’ is generally translated ‘Morning Star’. Today’s antiphon is not, however, a celebration of the Stalinist newspaper. A better rendering would be ‘rising sun’. On the shortest day of the year, in a nicely pagan move, the Church appeals to the image of the sun piercing the darkness to speak about the promised Saviour. The image is universally human; there is something primal about it. Yet it fits naturally into the particularity of Christian imagery. The darkness of sin is dispersed by the sun of redemption in Christ.
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
It’s some time now since Johnny Cash sold well with a recording of a sympathetic live performance from a prison. In our more moralistic time, nothing could be further from the Zeitgeist than speaking of release of prisoners. Yet that is precisely what the Church does this evening. There’s an echo here of Graham Greene’s “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”. The coming redemption is a threat because it is so universal, so revolutionary, so merciful. It leaves those aspects of ourselves which would set ourselves apart from or above others, that would see ourselves as the Good over against the Bad, with nowhere to hide. The tacit condition of the prayer “Come Lord Jesus” is recognition that his love is unbounded.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Today’s antiphon is taken from Isaiah 11:10, which speaks of the root of Jesse being a signal to the peoples. The rather inadequate translation used at Evening Prayer in English speaks of the ‘stock’ of Jesse, not justified as a translation of the Latin ‘radix’ and a throwback to the first verse of Isaiah 11. Yet there’s a wisdom, no doubt unintended, in this liturgical kerfuffle. The uniqueness of the Incarnate Word is captured in the fact that he is, as a human being, of the stock of Jesse, the promised Messiah of Davidic descent, whilst at the same time, as God, being behind and before all human kinships. “O wonder of wonders which none can unfold, the Ancient of Days is an hour or two old“.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Jewish traditions have generally been a lot more sensitive to the problems that attach to naming the divine than is modern Christianity. The Lord, the Creator of all that is, lies beyond our speech – it falls to us to name creatures, not the Creator. God is encountered in glory and majesty, as cloud and fire. Here is something outside our ordinary world Our talk of God, then, should recognise its own difference from ordinary speech, and thereby its inadequacy of its object. ‘Adonai’ is a plural of respect, meaning literally ‘Lords’, the plural expresses the majesty of the Lord. Used to replace the divine name ‘YHWH’ when read aloud, it has itself acquired a sense of holiness sufficient for some to replace it with simply ‘the Name’ (HaShem).
The one we long for in Advent is mysterious, beyond our comprehension. The Incarnation (which as the Athanasian Creed reminds us was ‘not by conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the manhood into God’) does not change that. Rather, through the humanity of Christ, the mystery of God becomes our mystery, in which we participate by grace.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
“I’m so clever, but clever ain’t wise”, sang Babyshambles. Wisdom is in short-supply, I don’t exclude myself from this judgement. For Aquinas wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, bestowing ‘rectitude of judgement according to the moral law’. Stern though this may sound, the point is a basic one: there is a state that goes beyond mere knowledge of facts, that consists in seeing situations in their true light and having a sense of how one ought to act within them to best show love for God and one’s fellow human beings.
The antiphon for the Magnificat at vespers today:
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.