O DAYSPRING (Zech 6:12; Lk 1:78),
Splendor of Eternal Light (Heb 1:3),
and Sun of Justice (Mal 4:2):
Come, and enlighten those that sit in darkness,
and in the shadow of death (Is 9:2; Lk 1:78-79).
The Orient From On High
O Oriens! Oriens: the word is familiar to those who chant the Benedictus in Latin every morning. “Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri — literally, through the inmost heart, the secret places of the mercy of our God — in quibus visitavit nos Oriens ex alto — in which the Orient from on high has visited us” (Lk 1:79). Oriens was the name of the ancient Roman sun god, the source of warmth, energy, and light. At the same time, Oriens means the rising sun, the victory of light over the shadows of the night.
From the earliest times, Christians at prayer have turned towards the East. Christ is the Dayspring, the rising sun who dawns upon us from high “to give light to those in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:9). The eastward orientation of churches and altars is a way of expressing the great cry of every Eucharist: “Let our hearts be lifted high. We hold them towards the Lord.” When, in the celebration of the liturgy, the priest faces east, he is “guiding the people in pilgrimage towards the Kingdom” and with them, keeping watch for the return of the Lord. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
The Eastern Churches follow to this day (and the Western Church is in the process of recovering) the apostolic tradition of celebrating the Eucharist towards the East in anticipation of the return of the Lord in glory. A powerful witness is given in the prayer of a priest and people who stand together facing eastward and giving voice to the same hope. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come’” (Ap 22:17).
Our King and Our Priest
The prophet Zechariah is another source of the antiphon. The Vulgate gives a shimmering image of Christ, the Orient who is our King and our Priest. “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, saying: Behold a Man, the Orient is his name. . . . Yea, he shall build a temple to the Lord: and he shall bear the glory, and he shall sit, and rule upon his throne: and he shall be a priest upon his throne” (Zech 6:12-13).
Sun of Justice
“Splendor of eternal light” comes from the Letter to the Hebrews. Christ is called “the brightness of the glory of God, and the figure of his substance” (Heb 1:3). “Sun of Justice” comes from the prophet Malachi. “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Mal 4:2).
Today’s O Antiphon is carefully constructed; after three invocations of Christ the Light, the petition begins. But — surprise! Today’s Great O departs from the familiar pattern: the Veni coming, as it were, out of the depths: do-fa-mi. Today, our Veni has a certitude, a note of triumph, the beginning of a jubilation. It is as if the first rays of the Dayspring are already illuminating our eyes and warming our faces. Today, our cry Veni is sung on la-sol, right after the musical summit of the whole antiphon. Picture this: you have climbed to a mountain peak before sunrise and there, as you survey the dark horizon, you catch the first rosy glimmers of the dawn. From your mountain height you give voice to the cry of your heart: Veni! But the cry comes from one who already sees the light.
Woven From the Fibres of the Word
The petition part of the antiphon is taken almost textually from the Benedictus: “Come, and enlighten those that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death” (Is 9:2; Lk 1:78-79). Behind the text of Saint Luke, of course, lies the prophecy of Isaiah that we will sing at Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined” (Is 9:2). The extraordinary thing about today’s O Antiphon is that in five short lines —three of invocation and two of petition— there are six biblical sources! There is, I think, no better example of how the liturgy is woven from the very fibers of the Word.
The Ardour of Our Desires
Mother Marie des Douleurs, the foundress of the Congregation of the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, wrote on December 21, 1933, her 31st birthday: “Saint Thomas is the apostle who, to carry the light, went furthest from his native country. As for us, let our “Veni,” like his, not be self-centered. . . . We have to give thanks for the labors of the apostles, and help them as much as possible. We will do it by the ardour of our desires. This ardor, proven by the sincerity of our abnegation, will raise up strong men ready for martyrdom. . . . Each of us, if she knew how to say the “Veni” with all the forces of soul and heart that grace gives, could in this way save entire countries.”
Mother Marie des Douleurs explodes all narrowness, all petty preoccupation with self. She opens a window onto vast horizons — truly catholic ones — and with the Church invites us to sing a joyful “Veni” not for ourselves alone but for a world “in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79).