OOriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Day-Spring, Brightness of the Light everlasting, and Sun of righteousness: Come, and enlighten them that sitteth in darkness, and the shadow of death.
– English from Divine Worship: Daily Office
From the Cardinal virtues, moving around the compass, we pass now to the theological virtues. These actually complete the compass for there are seven directions – not just four – in the ancient Cosmology. Sevens were an important part of the understanding of the ancient world: seven visible planets (Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), seven days, etc. So, in addition to West, North, East, and South, there is also down, up, and center. We will begin at the bottom and work our way in.
Oriens refers to the dawn – to the light that fills up the east, to the “orient” and to the “orientation”. It’s the very beginning of all things for us. Yes, it’s Jesus. And he is everywhere, but, more importantly, he’s the ground we stand on, the first step, the Word spoken that forms our lives. So, Jesus the dawn, the beginning, is for us the “faith by which we stand” (2 Cor 1:24).
Two things about this verse. Thing one: the Antiphon is paraphrased in the Old English poetry collection known as Crist – in section one, the Advent Lyrics. The lines are:
Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail Earendel brightest of angels,
over Middle Earth sent to men.
You will note that in Old English, our world is called Middangeard or “Middle Earth” which implies “that which is between Over-heaven and the Under-world”. You will hear the echo of JRR Tolkien there – and also in the translation of Oriens as Earendel – which is also the name of one of the “good guys” in Tolkien’s created universe.
Thing two is more important for our work here – the consideration of the virtue of faith as the ground of all being. This antiphon is sung every year at vespers on 21 December, that is, on the night of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the shortest day of the year and, from that day until 21 June, the light begins to lengthen each day. So that night (from the 21st into the 22nd) is the longest night, but with Oriens – with dawn – the next day is about 4 mins longer and each day thereafter until midsummer is from 4 to 6 mins longer. So the Church marks the longest night with a prayer for the Radiant Dawn! It is our faith that, even in darkness, God will come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. It is our faith that darkness never wins, in fact the darkness is not a thing: darkness is only the absence of light and Christ is the light of the world.
What is Faith? Let us turn to Father (as he then was) Joseph Ratzinger. The whole passage is important, but I’ve underlined the best part.
We now begin to discern a first vague outline of the attitude signified by the word credo. It means that man does not regard seeing, hearing, and touching as the totality of what concerns him, that he does not view the area of his world as marked off by what he can see and touch but seeks a second mode of access to reality, a mode he calls in fact belief, and in such a way that he finds in it the decisive enlargement of his whole view of the world. If this is so, then the little word credo contains a basic option vis-à-vis reality as such; it signifies, not the observation of this or that fact, but a fundamental mode of behavior toward being, toward existence, toward one’s own sector of reality, and toward reality as a whole. It signifies the deliberate view that what cannot be seen, what can in no wise move into the field of vision, is not unreal; that, on the contrary, what cannot be seen in fact represents true reality, the element that supports and makes possible all the rest of reality. And it signifies the view that this element that makes reality as a whole possible is also what grants man a truly human existence, what makes him possible as a human being existing in a human way. In other words, belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point that cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, that encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own existence.Introduction to Christianity, 2nd Ed, Fr Joseph Ratzinger (German, 1968), trans. J.R. Foster, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004.
Later he says belief is “accepting what plainly cannot be seen as the truly real and fundamental.” In other words, this trusting in God (Faith) defines literally everything about us. It is not “a part” of who we are it is the important part of reality, the center of us. As Rich Mullins sang, “I did not make it, it is making me.” In our cosmological map, it is the ground, the direction of down.
So here, then, on the 5th antiphon, is the beginning of the answer I sought to the problem of evil with these essays, as well as back in the early 1980s when there was so much evil in my life. Somehow, even when it feels as if everything sucks, our faith insists that God is working his purpose out. God is playing a long game, though, both in general and specifically. God loves everyone equally (Caritas) but God desires each of us personally, fully, especially. God’s long game includes calling all people to himself, but especially, calling you, personally into his loving embrace. At no point does that preclude bad things happening: he never promised you a rose garden. What faith demands is that the bad things are also working to the end God intended. St Paul speaks to this in Romans
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?[f] 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:28-39 (RSVCE)
God is working a plan out – just as he did for Jesus in the Garden. Our submission to God’s will (For thy sake we are being killed all the day long) will lead us to the same glory as Jesus (we are more than conquerors through him who loved us).
As long as we keep walking through Middle Earth in the virtue of faith, Earendel, the “brightness of the Light everlasting” will show us the way and “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
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