O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Dayspring, brightness of the light everlasting and Sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
The image of the rising sun to describe the advent of a hoped for, just savior is probably as old and as universal as the longing itself. Sunrise is nature’s own way of giving hope, as each new day brings the possibilities of better things. And so it is in Scripture. There are so many images of light.
But our antiphon in fact arises (if I may be permitted the pun) from a New Testament source: the Canticle of Zechariah, otherwise known as the Benedictus, in Luke 1:78-79: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." The Vulgate text makes it unmistakably the source: Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri: in quibus visitavit nos, oriens ex alto: Illuminare his qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent.
This text is one of the most familiar in the monastic liturgy, being recited daily at Lauds from at least the time of Benedict in the sixth century, and likely before. In the Anglican tradition it is recited daily at Morning Prayer. So every morning every monk, and every observant daily office-reciting Anglican, and I am sure many another praying Christian as well, repeats this prophecy of John the Baptist’s father.
The sources of the other images are not as straightforward, but not hard to find, either. From Habakkuk 3:4 we have Splendor eius ut lux erit, and from Wisdom 7:26, candor est enim lucis æternæ. Doubtless there are other sources as well. The sol justitiae probably comes from Malachi 4:2: Et orietur vobis timentibus nomen meum Sol iustitiae, et sanitas in pennis eius: "But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings."
Light is the image that dominates here. The coming of the Messiah is a time when the lights which had dimmed will brighten again, when a new day will dawn and life will have another chance. I have had a few times like that in my life, when what I really needed was a whole new light to begin again. The world gets old. Our lives get old, things wear out, depression sets in.
The image of people sitting in darkness is so true. It is remarkable how many people just sit around in darkened rooms, even on a lovely day, when the sky is clear and the air is fresh. You would think that people would rejoice in the light, but they don’t always. Sometimes we have created a comfortable little place for ourselves, away from the light, away from the fresh air, something filled with our own stuff, our own space for our own undisturbed selfness. Sometimes this darkness is an external correlative to depression or illness or unhappiness or failure. I think this great antiphon challenges that. It invites us to look away from ourselves, to the east, so to speak, to the rising sun, and to let something new in, something that will shake up our darkness, whether it be born of pain or is simply a comfy but still self-involved nook or cranny, which will let in the light and give us new life. Which we need. Our own life is never enough by itself. At the most basic level, at the level of the insufficiency of ourselves to be the center of our own lives, we need saving.
It is perhaps worth noting that this light-centered antiphon always falls on or a day before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the light is brief, and depending on how far north you are, weak.