O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Christian Prayer, 130).
In a way similar to the “O Antiphon” from December 17th (O Wisdom), today’s “O Antiphon” has an intrinsically recapitulatory dynamic. Meaning that the title used to describe the coming Messiah today uses language that sums up God’s activity from creation to salvation. We will see this in the many strands of meaning that come together to fill out what this “O Antiphon” has to teach us about Who God Is, and who we have been created and, re-created, to be in relation to Him.
The passage from Isaiah which today’s “O Antiphon” comes from is very familiar to us, as it is the first reading from the Midnight Mass Liturgy:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone (Isaiah 9:1).
As has been repeatedly reiterated in our discussions of the great “O Antiphons” of Advent, the passages from Isaiah associated with the antiphons point forward to the coming of the Messiah in the future. However, this “O Antiphon” likewise looks backwards, if you will, as well. Notice the dynamic in this particular verse, there is a movement from darkness to light. This should immediately call to mind the first couple verses of Genesis:
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth—and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light (Genesis 1:1-3).
The Hebrew word used for darkness here is choshek, rooted in the word chashak, with the same meaning. Paired with formlessness, darkness here refers to what is known as the Tohu-Bohu, primordial disorder and chaos. Out of the chaos of nothingness God brings creative order, beauty and goodness. The first words He speaks in doing this, “Let there be light,” “Fiat lux,” in the Latin (which will be important below). Now, to be sure, the light that God speaks into being here is not the Light spoken of in today’s “O Antiphon.” The light here spoken into being is a creature (whether one interprets it as the angels or literal light), and not the Second Person of the Trinity Who Is, as we profess, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father,” every Sunday at the Eucharistic Liturgy. That said, as creation is an act of the entire Trinity, the Fathers of the Church were inclined to see the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity in these opening verses of Genesis, the Word spoken by the Father as the Son and the wind or breath (ruach) that swept over the darkness as the very breath of God, the Holy Spirit. And so, there is something fitting about the first creature spoken into existence by the Word being light to participate in the very existence of God through, with and in the Second Person of the Trinity, Who is God from God and Light from Light.
The last creature created in Genesis 1, is, of course, the human person, called into existence by the Word of God in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). The second account of creation gives us a sense of what life was like for the human family after having been created. The picture is one of abundance, the human family having all that was needed to fill their physical and spiritual needs alike. The latter is seen in the intimacy which our first parents experience with God. This is suggested by the fact that we are told that God walked about the garden in the “breezy time of the day,” or the evening with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8).
This harmonious existence that abided between the Divine and human at this time is described by the Church as a state of “original justice” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 400). For our purposes the term means two things. First, the relationship between God and the human family is characterized by justice, a situation in which each was given their due, the human family loving God above all things and all things in and for God. Secondly, it refers to the state of Adam and Eve. Because they existed in a harmonious relationship with God, they experienced harmony both between them and within themselves. Between them there was no bickering, anger, or hatred, and within them, the powers of their souls knew no errant passion or desire, but existed in what we might call an original state of virtue. Tragically, after the first sin, the Fall, all of this drastically changes. A chasm between God and humanity now yawns open (Genesis 3:8 & 10), and the human couple is set against one another (Genesis 3:12-13), and the soul, once resplendent with Divine Virtue, now experienced for the first time, the chaos of disordered desire (Genesis 3:7). In short, in turning away from God through sin, the human family experienced exactly what God said they would, death (Genesis 2:17).
Through sin the human family, once called into existence to participate in the very life of God, now fell back toward the nothingness from which they came, and as they fell the chosek, the chaos from which they were drawn now found its way back into their souls. We see this idea witnessed to by Scripture in the use of the term chosek. For, in addition to primordial chaos and disorder, choshek and derivations thereof, are often used figuratively in Scripture to refer to destruction, wickedness, or sin. For example, in Isaiah 5:20, the Prophet speaks out against “those who call evil good, and good evil, who changed darkness (ḥō·šeḵ) to light, and light into darkness.” The same idea is found in Proverbs 2:13, which speaks of “those who have left the straight paths to walk in the ways of darkness (ḥō·šeḵ), Who delight in doing evil and celebrate perversity.” It seems clear that, among other things, Scripture wants to impart upon us that after the Fall, the world, once experienced as a place of abundance, is now experienced as a place of darkness and the shadow of death.
The only remedy for this situation, of course, would be to reestablish the human family’s relationship with God, for only by the restoration of original justice could justice among the human family and within the human soul likewise be restored. Only such a restoration could save the human family from eternal death, eternal separation from God. Thus, what was needed was a reset of sorts, for the God Who had first called all things into existence to call them once more into new existence. On the 17th, we drew from the Prologue of the Gospel of John in order to explore this idea, and John is helpful here once again. There, the eternal Word (John 1:1), is described as life which is the light of the human race (John 1:4). It is this same Light, John tells us, that now becomes flesh in the fullness of time: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Later, the Light would testify to Himself, saying to us: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And, when Matthew recounts for us the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, he can think of no better way to describe what the human family was experiencing through this ministry than to refer to the passage from Isaiah upon which today’s “O Antiphon” is based: “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen” (Matthew 4:16).
Through His preaching a Wisdom only obscurely understood throughout history since the Fall of our first parents, now shone with resplendent clarity. Through word and deed, Christ, the Wisdom of God Incarnate, saved us “from the way of the wicked, from those whose speech is perverse. From those who have left the straight paths to walk in the ways of darkness” (Proverbs 2:12-13). Yet, to be born, to teach and exemplify the truth were not enough for Divine Love. No, this Love which “reaches to the end” desired to love to the end so that not one son or daughter of Adam and Eve found themselves without remedy for their dire situation (John 13:1). And so, in one final confrontation, Light allowed the darkened places of the human free will to act, “and it was night” (John 13:30). In the providential working of Divine Love, the action of darkness only served, as we saw yesterday, for the Light to penetrate the pitch black darkness of divine forsakenness on Holy Saturday. And on the third day, He rose again, so that we might move from light to Light through with and in Him.
This Light, of course, was brought into the world through the womb of Mary. Contemplating Our Lord’s conception in Our Lady momentarily, provides the same backward and forward looking prerogative that the passage from Isaiah cited above provided us. Our Lady is central to God’s plan for the salvation of the human family, and as one preserved by Christ’s grace in original justice from the first moment of her conception, demonstrates for us both what harmonious cooperation between the divine and human looks like even amidst a fallen world and the power that harmonious activity can have when it takes place.
If we attend closely to the episode of the Annunciation, we find the same dynamics at play in God’s work of re-creation as we saw in His act of creation. The Angel Gabriel appears to Our Lady and, as God’s messenger, speaks the Divine Word to her. Mary is to conceive and bear the Son of God (Luke 1:31-33). How?, Mary, the natural born theologian asks (Luke 1:34). By the power of the Holy Spirit is this child to be conceived, is Gabriel’s response (Luke 1:35). And now, Mary, with all of creation suspensefully waiting for her response, as only the true Daughter of Zion could do, answers by echoing the very voice of God: fiat, let it be. Mary says the very same word spoken by God at the beginning, but whereas in the beginning created light was born (fiat lux), by God’s grace Mary’s fiat conceives the very Light (Lux) of the world, and a new beginning for the human family is ushered in.
If we learn something by looking back from the Annunciation, we also learn something by looking forward therefrom. For the very same dynamics at play in the incarnation reverberate down the centuries as the Church gives birth to and sustains the Body of Christ. Each and every single Christian is conceived and born in the waters of Baptism by Mother Church. There, the Word speaks a Divine Word through His minister and just as at creation, the Trinity moves into action, this time in recreating, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Two titles of this sacrament speak to the meaning of today’s “O Antiphon” for our own lives. The Sacrament of Baptism has been referred to up and down the ages as the “bath of enlightenment,” because “having received in Baptism the Word, ‘the true light that enlightens every man,’ the person baptized has been ‘enlightened,’ he becomes a ‘son of light,’ indeed, he becomes ‘light’ himself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1216). Second, keeping with the theme of re-creation, Baptism is often referred to as the sacrament of regeneration, because it
is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission.
Both of these names for the Sacrament of Baptism imply two things. First, they speak to a restored relationship with God through, with and in the Son by the working of the Holy Spirit. In other words, this Sacrament marks the restoration of Original Justice as we come to share in the life of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404-405), the Sun of Justice Whose dawn dispels the darkness of death and orders the chaos of sin in our lives. Second, this participation in the life of Christ comes with a mandate to share in the mission of the Church of making Christ’s saving Pasch known and present to the world.
This mission was described in like terms by the Light. In His Sermon on the Mount, he tells us:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father (Matthew 5:14-16).
Understanding the metaphor properly is imperative here, and we can only do so in reference to what has come before in our discussion. Put very simply, we have no light of our own to share with the world. Our Lord makes a reference to a lamp here for a reason, a lamp is not the source of its own light, but must derive its light from another source, be it fire lit from the spark of a match or by electricity running through it. Just so, the only light we could possibly be lit with comes from another source, the Sun of Justice. The lamp is the creature, the Sun of Justice the Creator (St. Augustine, Sermon 292.4). Through the working of the Holy Spirit, the Sun lights and keeps the former lit for the whole world to see, that they might be moved to give glory and praise to God for such beauty. As long as we remain united to Christ through a life of grace, we remain light for the world. But, to the degree that we separate ourselves from Him, to the very same degree do we dim the light which we shine with. Augustine puts it this way:
In fact, all human beings are lamps because they can be illuminated and put out, and they really are lamps when they are wise, shine and burn with the Spirit; while if they were burning and have gone out, they stink. The good lamps, you see, have persevered as servants of God, kept alight from the oil of his mercy, not from their own strength. God’s freely-given grace, I mean, that is the oil in the lamps (Homilies on the Gospel of John, 23.3).
Accordingly, in order to receive this Light into our lives, humility is required, for humility allows us to understand our created nature properly. We have no power of our own to create from nothing, we did not call ourselves into being. Likewise, we have no power of our own for re-creating. However, when we live in God’s grace, we become channels thereof and allow God’s Light to shine brightly in a world living in darkness and the shadow of death. Let us pray for the grace of humility as we approach the birth of Our Savior, that we might in unity with Him, be a Light to the nations (Lumen Gentium, 1).
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.