Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O Oriens

Note: This post is the fifth in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Rising Sun, 
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: 
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

At this time of the year, it can get awfully dark. I'll get home from work at the parish and my wife will be coming home late. Sometimes she had work to do, or some shopping to catch up on, so I'll have that first hour or so home by myself. On those days I'll often go downstairs, maybe play some Halo, and then come back upstairs when Bethany gets home. It'll only be about 6:30 or so, but it's already getting dark outside.

And we'd expect that, because it can get awfully dark at this time of the year.

Those families who live on tough hourly wages, working to make Christmas happen for their families, find themselves farther and farther behind and wonder how they will make it to January 1. Others who feel the persistent absence of loved ones feel it more acutely during the holiday season. And with all the joy and happiness all around, those for whom this month is hard wind up cold, lonely and squinting to see in the dark.

Because it can get awfully dark at this time of the year.

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. 

The early church usually celebrated Eucharist with the priest facing east, a position known in liturgical-speak as celebrating ad orientem. After Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal movement of the twentieth century, this position became more commonly known as “celebrating with your back to the people.” And that's unfortunate, because it was not really about the priest doing magic while the people peered around the priest's back. It was much more about the priest standing in the same direction as the people, ascending to the altar with them and for them, and celebrating Eucharist with everyone facing a transcendent God (instead of everyone gathered around and facing the priest as the center of focus).

And they called it ad orientem.

That's latin for “to the east.”

The priest would stand and face the rising sun, offering to God simple bread and wine and asking God to become present for the people in those offerings. The priest would stand and face the rising sun in defiant expectation that Jesus was coming again. There would be a certain type of coming, a certain type of advent, in Eucharist, but Eucharist was much more than that, Eucharist would stretch us, reaching forward to Christ's second coming. In the midst of a world in love with Power, the priest would stand and defiantly face East, confident that he would see Christ come again in the bread, but also knowing there was a day when Christ would come on the clouds of the East and return.

Far too often in the church we hide the darkness in our lives. We pretend it's not there, that everything is light and beautiful. But in reality, there are places of oppressive darkness that terrify us.

So we all face the priest as the priest faces us, watch the priest do the Eucharist, and smile, believing it's OK. And that's fine. There are benefits to the priest celebrating ad populum, facing the people. I'd never try single-handedly to change a parish's practice in that area.

But every now and then...

Every now and then...

Every now and then it would do us some good to stand up and face the east. To stand up in defiance of a world that thinks it is in control, to stand up in defiance of all the darkness that creeps into our lives, to stand up in defiance of all of that, face the east, and tell one another that Christ will come on the wings of dawn and spread warm light throughout the world.

Not bright garish light that will make us shrink back.

No, the Dayspring, will spread the warm light of the dawn, reaching it's tendrils out through the darkness of a fleeting night, whispering softly to our hurting hearts that everything was not as scary as it seemed.

It's OK now. The nightmare is over. The God who created us has returned and the things that frighten us must flee.

Shh, Mommy's here. Daddy's here. The mother of our souls has returned. The father of our salvation has returned. The dawn has arrived and the darkness has been forced to flee.

Face east, brothers and sisters. Stand up today and look hard at the east. Our Dayspring is about to come.

O Oriens.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

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