Advent Preaching Series: “O Radiant Light: Come and Enlighten Us.”
This evening is the second in a three-part Advent sermon series on the “O Antiphons,” which have been prayed in Christian monasteries since about the 6thcentury. An antiphon is a short focusing sentence that precedes and follows the singing of a psalm or canticle. The seven “O Antiphons” are sung at Evensong before and after the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, between December 17th and December 23rd, in anticipation of Christmas. Each of the “O Antiphons” uses a title for the Messiah found in the prophecy of Isaiah.[i] These antiphons begin with “O,” in the sense of when something dawns on you, and you say with exclamation, “Oh!” This evening our theme is “O Radiant Light: Come and enlighten us.”
Light figures very importantly in this season. Look around. Candlelights appear here on the Advent wreath. Outside we find strings of light thread across streets, in shop windows, on housetop gables, on fireplace mantles, and on Christmas trees. These festive lights this season of the year actually have a Christian history, but not a Christian origin. Let’s take a step backward in history before we move forward.
The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th is because the early Christians wanted the date to coincide with a festival of the Roman Empire. On December 25th the Roman Empire observed “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[ii] This Roman festival was celebrated when the winter days again began to lengthen, and the sun rose higher in the sky: the winter solstice.[iii] That’s December 25th. Light has figured very importantly in the dawning of Christianity. In the Gospel account, the shepherds learned about the birth of Jesus Christ from an angel that radiated God’s glory.[iv] And both King Herod and the Magi from the east learned of the Messiah’s birthplace through the shining of a star.[v] In later years, Jesus would call himself “the light of the world.”[vi] Saint Paul writes about “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[vii] The Gospel according to John begins by speaking of Jesus Christ as “the true light, which enlightens everyone…”[viii]
Whether or not we understand the history and symbolism of this season’s festal light, we do innately crave light. Whether we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or whether we are afraid of “things that go bump in the night,” or whether we simply feel that we’re “in the dark” about the unfolding of our own life, we crave light and enlightenment.[ix] The festal lights we see most everywhere this season are reminders of how common and how deep our yearning for real light actually is, and to the depths of our souls.
Here are some scenes of light, some word pictures of about light:
- In the Genesis creation story, when God created the heavens and the earth… darkness was everywhere. On the first day, God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” That’s day number one in creation. But it was not until the fourth day in the creation story that the sun and moon and stars of the sky were created.[x]Which is to say God’s light precedes our Light. Light, as we know it, is a creature. God is above our light, and beyond our light, and behind and before our light. So we read in the First Epistle of John, “God is light and in [God] there is no darkness at all.”[xi] You may sometimes feel in the dark; God is not in the dark. Facing God’s light can make a remarkable difference in your day, and in your life. Not unlike on a sunny day in winter when it feels so good to have the sun shine on your face, simply do that: dare to face God, who knows you, who sees you, and who sees into you, not in a critical light but in an adoring light. Let the light of God’s countenance shine on you.[xii] No need to hide. God knows you, and the only way you will know how much God knows you and loves you is to face God, so that “the eyes of [your own] heart also be enlightened.”[xiii] Acknowledge God’s radiant light seeing you from the inside out. And God sees you not unlike we see a child in a Christmas play. No matter how well the child acts, whether or not the child remembers his or her lines, whether the child picks up the cues or drops the props, we’re full of delight, compassion, encouragement, and gratitude for how well the child does, no matter. God knows and loves children, and we are all children of God. And God adores us.
- Mirror the light of God’s life and love into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God. William Blake writes, “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….” Do that. Presume the reason you are yet alive, for as much as one more day, is to participate in the life and light and love of God. Receive the light, then look upon others and be radiant, bearing God’s light, and life, love for them. They may otherwise never know in their lifetime, at least not today, how much God loves them. Receive the light of God’s countenance, and mirror that light into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God. In the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen said that “every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of God.”[xiv] Reflect the beams of God’s light, and life, and love.
- If the light of God seems occluded from you just now, this is what will hurt, and this is what will help. What will block the light is anger, resentment, disdain, and envy. This will crimp the conduit of God’s light into your soul, and without that light you are prone to get lost. Anger, resentment, disdain, and envy block the light and leave you opaque with nothing, certainly nothing good, to reflect upon your own life and upon others. Anger, resentment, disdain, and envy hurt. They snuff the light and need to be purged from your soul. What helps is gratitude. Thankfulness turns on the inner light. At this moment, if you are not deeply in touch with gratitude, then you can’t see what you’re missing… but you can find out very quickly. Simply be thankful, now: for your ability to breathe; for the color purple; for music and harmony and ears to hear it; for the ability to walk; for light to be able to see; for a bed on which to sleep; for someone who has stood by you and not forgotten you. On and on you could go… and you should. Living gratefully could be like praying without ceasing. The nineteenth-century American poet and abolitionist Lucy Larcom wrote, “If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.”[xv] Gratitude kindles the fire of light, and life, and love.
- One last word about light in darkness. I draw here on the insight of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic. John of the Cross speaks of what he calls “the dark night of the senses,” when our normal spiritual consolations – good feelings, stillness, insights – fail us. He says, those moments are “like standing in a dark room. We become accustomed to the dark and can make out the vague shapes of a table here, a chair there. But if someone suddenly brings a bright light, we are blinded – we experience a kind of darkness even though the room is flooded in light. When we feel complete darkness in prayer, it may be because [God’s] light is so close that it blinds us, and all we ‘see’ is our own darkness.”[xvi] You are not alone in the dark. You may be blinded by God’s presence which you can only see when you stand back or look back. In meantime, know that God is with you, God for whom the day is the same as the night.[xvii]
As Christmas approaches, if you are asking the question, maybe desperately, whether God is with you, I suggest you rephrase the question. The question is not whether God is with you, but how God is with you. Because God Emmanuel is with you. Whether the landscape of your soul is brightly illuminated just now, or whether you are temporarily blinded by more light than you can bear, or whether the darkness simply seems to loom large, God is with you and, in the fullness of time, God will waken the dawn, enlighten the eyes of your heart, and provide the way.[xviii]
“O Radiant Light: Come and Enlighten Us.”
[i]The first letters of the titles to the seven “O Antiphons,” starting from last to first, form a Latin acrostic: Ero Cras: “tomorrow, I will be there,” which is the overall theme of the “O Antiphons” – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – these Messianic titles found in the Prophecy of Isaiah.
[ii]On December 25th, the Roman Empire celebrated Natalis Solis Invicti: The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
[vi]John 8:12; 9:5; 12:46.
[vii]2 Corinthians 4:6.
[ix]A legendary Scottish poem ends with the verse: “From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!”
[xi]1 John 1:5.
[xii]Psalm 4:6; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3, 7; 80:18; 90:8; 119:135.
[xiv]Hildegard of Bingen, OSB (1098-1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, composer, philosopher, and mystic.
[xv]Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) was a poet, author, and teacher at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.
[xvi]The Dark Night, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, rev. ed., trans Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD; bk. 1, ch. 8, #1, p. 375.
[xvii]Psalm 139:11 “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”
[xviii]“Waken the dawn” from Psalm 57:8 and 108:2. “The eyes of our hearts being enlightened” from Ephesians 1:18.
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