O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
This is one of the famous O Antiphons, which are recited or chanted by priests and religious everywhere during the final days of advent. This particular antiphon is the one I and my confreres will recite this evening and it translates to “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.” It draws on the rich prophetic history which compared the Messiah and God himself to a rising sun or to a great light that comes to people in darkness. The Song of Songs, many of the Psalms, the famous hymn of Zechariah that we heard Monday, the Canticle of Simeon that we will hear at the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple; all of these draw on that primal attraction we human beings have to light and to the sun as a source of hope, warmth, and light.
But, primal as it may be, the image sometimes remains a little abstract for us. In the midst of gift-giving, travelling, vacations, family-gatherings, and great meals, do we really understand just how monumental Christmas is in the history of the world? Sure, Christ is the light of the world, but do I really know what it means to “dwell in darkness” like the Antiphon says? Does I experience this light as something great for which I have been longing? Or do I just kind of enjoy the moment and move along without grasping what happened? As I reflected on these questions, it reminded me of something I once witnessed as a Seminarian that I now want to share with you, some that challenged me to reconsider if I really love Jesus.
As part of formation, seminarians are given summer assignments, which usually consists of living in a parish for 2 months and learning first hand about priestly life. During one such summer assignment, I had occasion to visit a nursing home to help with distributing communion during mass. I was sent down the halls to residents who could not come to the common room for the mass itself. It was there that I saw something I hope I never forget. An elderly man, bed-ridden, completely blind, and totally deaf was in the last room on the right side of the hall. I remember seeing his bed in the corner and he was just laying there, waiting. For him, it was a wait in total silence and total darkness. The only communication he knew was touch. As his other senses faded, he had learned to communicate via touches in the palm of his hand. One of the ladies with me (I think it was his wife), quietly went over to him and picked up his hand. As soon as he realized that she was telling him to sit up to receive communion… that’s when I knew I don’t know a thing about loving Jesus in the Eucharist. He almost jumped to a sitting position, a profound light and eagerness pouring from his face, his mouth open to receive the only person who could possibly know what he was experiencing. In that worn, but hopeful face I saw pain and loneliness give birth to an immense love that almost brings me to tears even as I write about it now. At the time, I was practically stunned by what I was witnessing. I couldn’t even really process it. It wasn’t until later that I really thought about what that man must have experienced. That I thought about how, for him, Jesus in the Eucharist must have been like a light amid great darkness, the voice of a friend breaking through an unbearable silence.
What was it that made this man so happy to receive the Eucharist? From a natural point of view, why would placing a small wafer of bread on a blind, deaf man’s tongue make him so ridiculously happy? Because of what that wafer really was and… because that man knew his infinitesimal smallness; how powerless and insignificant he was in the world. He knew how dark and meaningless everything could be. And he knew his own need for the Lord. So when that Lord came to him in such a humble and simple manner, his only possible response was joy. I have to imagine that, when his time came to part from his nearly-useless body, he was ready to receive and be received by our Lord and savior.
At the beginning of John’s Gospel we hear “in him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Truly the darkness has not overcome it, but are we willing to recognize that we are in darkness? Christmas is close, but it’s not here just yet! With Lent going into Easter, the darkest and more intense times comes right before the celebration: Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Could we treat these last days of advent and similar kind of seriousness? If you’re anything like me, maybe you didn’t live up to your Advent resolutions as much as you hoped. But there is still time. Here are some ideas for the last few days of Advent:
- Make a super thorough Examination of Conscience: Nothing like a detailed reflection on your sins to help you recognize that you are in darkness and in need of the light of Christ. I recommend this examination, or perhaps this one. Of course, go to confession with that list so you can be fully disposed to receive Christ at Christmas.
- Learn about Christians (and other human beings) in Aleppo and elsewhere that are in dire circumstances. Dedicate a specific amount of time to pray for them. Seeing the darkness in the world and being in solidarity with them is also an excellent way to remind of the world’s need for the light of Christ
- Renew your Advent resolution (if you didn’t keep it) or make a new, more-intense one as a kind of final push. I recommend daily mass if you don’t go already. The readings do a great job of bringing us step-by-step up to the joyous events of Christmas. If you can’t go, spend some time with the readings or even take up praying Evening Prayer so you can get in on those last two O Antiphons.
Whatever you do, remember the reason for the season and give thanks that Christ has come to “shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.”