Originally published in 2015, this essay is part of a series I used to do annually on the Great O Antiphons of Advent. This Verse will be sung tonight at Vespers and, since this night is the Longest Night, and tomorrow is the Dawn of Summer’s Advent, we sing. “O Dawn”. The church knows when the solstice is, certainly, although it has nothing to do with the date of Christmas. Many parts of the liturgical year are tied (officially or not) to the natural cycle of the northern hemisphere: not just major holidays, but also fasting on the quarter days, the choice of which feast in a Saint’s Life is more important, etc. The liturgical cycle sanctifies time rather than obliterating it. We are manifesting heaven on earth sacramentally, not escaping earth and fleeing to “realms of spirit.” The physical world is being saved, not ignored.
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.
O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
This is my favourite of the Great O Antiphons, for entirely non-liturgical reasons: this verse is one of several paraphrased by the Orthodox Anglo-Saxon Poet, Cynewulf in his long poem Crist or, in modern English, Christ. In Anglo Saxon and in English, the lines run:
It was this text that gave J.R.R. Tolkien the name and purpose of his character, Eärendil the Mariner. Oddly enough I learned about the Great O Antiphons (back in 1982 or 83) by reading about this connection with Tolkien and then doing research. That was before I had been exposed to western liturgy beyond Novus Ordo and late 70s ECUSA. It was the dawn of a new world for me – connecting Tolkien’s world that never was with parts of our world that were no longer.
Tolkien and his fellow writer, C.S. Lewis, knew that part of our modern problem is that our world is being destroyed – now, almost a century after their friendship, our world is nearly totally gone. We used to live in a world peopled by angels and located in the middle: not geographically, but mentally, spiritually, between heaven and hell. Now we are more than ever trapped in time, stranded between the past that cannot be and the future that is never. The religion of our culture, Scientific Nihilism, has washed away all connection, all sense of a possibility of connection, replacing a Transpersonal God with what C.S. Lewis called “The Empirical Bogey:”
…the great myth of our century with its gasses and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder… its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, it’s glib munificence of ciphers.
We pretend we have discovered the really awesome parts of the universe, when, in fact, all we have done is let our mind’s impression of the Speed of Light create in us a false sense of awe at mere numbers; numbers which we ourselves invented and to which we attach some sort of quasi-religious content. We become over-awed by generating the emotions within ourselves at our own inventions, as a child might, looking too fondly at a sand castle she has built on the beach.
But we have discarded the Created Order: the reality that is there, no matter how much we ignore it, or imagine we’ve surpassed it. We need the Dawn to show to us all of this.
We’ve got darkness and death again running parallel to light and justice. In the traditional liturgy this gets sung at Vespers on the 21st of December: the Solstice, the return of the Sun. Singing this verse creates the linking of Christ with the rising Sun, very literally in time and space.
A certain sort of political activist will often invoke Jesus as a supporter of “justice”. They do this without irony despite the fact that they would reject a vast majority of what Jesus stood for. They would certainly never call his teachings “Justice”. They make this rejection by saying that Jesus was merely human and often wrong based on the cultural biases of his time. But they are certain that any “outcast” calling for “justice” today would be supported by the Jesus they have invented as easily as science invents big numbers. Justice, in this political dialect, usually means “supporting my political causes and damning my opposition”. Jesus is not invoked as in this Antiphon, as being, himself, the Sun of Justice. God – Jesus – in his person – is Justice.
The Sun of Justice is a line taken from the Prophecy of Malachias 4:1-4
For behold the day shall come kindled as a furnace: and all the proud, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall set them on fire, saith the Lord of hosts, it shall not leave them root, nor branch. But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health in his wings: and you shall go forth, and shall leap like calves of the herd. And you shall tread down the wicked when they shall be ashes under the sole of your feet in the day that I do this, saith the Lord of hosts. Remember the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, the precepts, and judgments.
Ecce enim dies veniet succensa quasi caminus: et erunt omnes superbi et omnes facientes impietatem stipula: et inflammabit eos dies veniens, dicit Dominus exercituum, quae non derelinquet eis radicem et germen. Et orietur vobis timentibus nomen meum sol justite, et sanitas in pennis ejus: et egrediemini, et salietis sicut vituli de armento. Et calcabitis impios, cum fuerint cinis sub planta pedum vestrorum, in die qua ego facio, dicit Dominus exercituum. Mementote legis Moysi servi mei, quam mandavi ei in Horeb ad omnem Israel, praecepta et judicica.
The Justice that Jesus offers is only for those that fear God and do all that he commanded through Moses: they who do so shall tread down all the proud folk who do wickedly as ashes under their feet. But you can’t have God’s Justice for you to do something God has commanded you not to do, for there is no Justice beyond God’s law.
Here again we are being presented with the Empirical Bogey. We are convinced that our minds can discover things and then we invest those things with quasi-religious value. The new Jesus we have at last discovered in our wisdom supports us, not those stodgy religious sorts. Freedom, we have at least discovered in our wisdom, is not “the Free human being who is most himself in the will of God” but rather “I can do what I want.” The Evil One makes us hate what is good for us and love what is bad for us. In fact this is such a good trick of his, that he makes us think the bad stuff really is us. Thus Justice does not mean justly following God’s law and creating civil laws that enable others to do so as well. Justice means, “I can do what I want and you can be punished for thinking, saying, or living as if I shouldn’t do it.“
Which is to say that Jesus didn’t teach a “justice” that would have been recognized as such by anyone marching in our streets today. In fact, Jesus colluded with the unjust systems of his day: paying taxes, respecting civil authorities. He makes it rather clear that those authorities would not be there (just or not) if God had not put them there. In the matter of “judge not”, God will judge authorities that act outside of his divine Justice. That’s not for us to worry about (unless you happen to be in political office). Our job, as Christians, working our our salvation in fear and trembling, is to live in God’s Just Law, no matter what the world lives in. Paul, writing to Philemon, does not challenge the system of slavery in the Roman world, but rather he tells Philemon to act in God’s Justice towards his brother in Christ, the slave Onesimus, suggesting even that Philemon will do more (following God’s Love) than Paul even suggests in his letter. Paul doesn’t protest in the streets to change the laws: but he reminds Christians that they have a higher law to follow
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
So it is with us, today looking at the Antiphon, and for all time. We know that Justice comes from God in Jesus very person. Our secular laws, as such, mean precious little if they do not reflect this. They can be ignored as so many cardboard cutouts. The traditional prayer for civil authorities from the Russian Prayerbook makes this clear:
Save, O Lord, and have mercy on our president and all in authority throughout the world, commanders-in-chief of armies and navies and airfleets, governors of provinces and cities, and all the Christ-loving navies, armies and police; protect their power with peace, and subdue under their feet every enemy and foe, and speak peace and blessing in their hearts for Thy Holy Church, and for all Thy people, and grant that in their calm we too may lead a quiet and peaceful life in true belief, in all piety and honesty.
Civil gov’t is there only to keep the peace so the Church can do her work: this can be done with the second amendment, or without it, with socialism, capitalism or the odd hybrid we now have. As long as there is civil peace the Church can do her job. Be mindful that this prayer was also prayed for the leaders of the Soviet state…speak peace and blessing in their hearts for Thy Holy Church, and for all Thy people, and grant that in their calm we too may lead a quiet and peaceful life in true belief, in all piety and honesty.
From the state all we want is to be left alone. We need Jesus for Justice: which is an interpersonal quality, not a legal standing. All this world – including our gov’ts, our states, the religion of Scientific Nihilism and the Empirical Bogey – are all trapped in darkness and death. We seek the dawn, Earendel, to show us the way out.