O Oriens

O Dayspring

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

What strikes me about the O Antiphons is as christological praise hymns they name Christ with different metaphors of phenomena that impact us.

The Latin oriens names the direction of ‘the rising’ of the sun, and – from certain vantage points in the Christian world – the direction of paradise. Where early Christians stood on this earth it was the ‘Orient’ from which the new day manifests. Christians were not the only ones or the first ones to turn prayerfully towards the rising sun, but it certainly has been an integral part of the christological vision of our faith to associate it with light as well as darkness.

Indigenous peoples around the world, and our own various ancestors connected the four directions and a center, and particularly the East to variety of phenomena. Often each direction is associated with colors, elements, and imbued with significance. These memories of light and how it shapes our ‘orientation’ in the world, have become our Christian memory as well. We remember these ancient texts in Advent times of long nights and expectation.

Many Christian churches are ‘oriented.’ That is, they are directed towards the ‘dayspring,’ in the cardinal direction of the East. Tertullian spoke about the habit of Christians of his day of praying towards the Oriens, and churches being built in open places and ‘towards the light.’ Facing East from to the horizon, we look towards the coming of the light, in particular in the advent season in the Northern hemisphere, when the light has retreated and nights are long, and dark.

Tragically, often darkness and light have been associated with skin color, and the appreciation of light, and denigration of darkness has functioned to reinforce racism and white supremacy (and ‘light supremacy,’ the preference of theological metaphors of light over darkness). Hence we do well to question the stark differentiation and the supposed ‘lack’ that darkness represents. We may well heed Howard Thurman’s appreciation of mystical texts that speak about a ‘Luminous Darkness.’ We may want to remember Advent as a time when we are in seasonal darkness, that is not just ‘dark’, but also always luminous.

I have lived in the far North where there is a time of the day called the ‘Blue Hour.’ It is the time when the sun has sunk below the horizon but blue light is suspended between day and night. During the blue hour, the most exquisite types of dark blue radiate for hours. And when it finally does get dark, there are the stars to navigate by. Ancient navigators were dependent on it being dark to navigate with precision.

I have always found that darkness enveloping and enfolding rather than depressing or scary. Unless there is deep fog, clouds or urban light pollution in that darkness, there is quite a bit of natural light around in the dark. The stars and moon can reflect off the snow in ways that make the night far brighter than some of the short ‘days.’

The sun blocks out our neighbors far and near in the cosmos. Seeing them can helps us get ‘oriented’ to where we are and where we need to go.

That is – there is a vision available even in the darkness. Sometimes things can become clearer when it is dark outside, and sometimes when everything is cut away, when only a remainder of us is left, the sacred core of the universe can be more keenly felt.

Perhaps it is only in a cave that total darkness prevails. Outside of the caves in which we may hide we may see the lights that shine in the luminous darkness, while we wait, in hope, not terror, for the day to spring from the East. May you experience the luminous darkness this advent as we wait for the coming of Christ, the Oriens.

–Professor Marion Grau