God’s Response to Our Sitting in Darkness and Death, December 21, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Mass for December 21
December 21, 2013
Song 2:8-14, Ps 33, Lk 1:39-45

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here: 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • There’s a great irony of proclaiming in today’s first reading from the Song of Songs, “The winter is past,” on the day winter begins, but it will make far greater sense if we understand the Song of Songs from the perspective of today’s O Antiphon* (see explanation below): O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis. “O Rising Sun in the East, splendor of eternal light and sun of justice, come, illumine those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.” Jesus is the Rising Sun and his light — his eternal “Light from Light” — shines in the midst of the greatest darkness and makes the darkest day of the year radiant. Even when we’re walking through the dark valley of the shadow of death, Jesus comes to bring us into the kingdom of light.
  • We see this happen in the Gospel. Even though John the Baptist is in the darkness of Elizabeth’s womb, Jesus comes in the womb of Mary and irradiates that darkness with his light and joy. We see the same dynamism in the first reading, the Song of Songs, which is an allegory of the dramatic loving dialogue that’s supposed to happen between God and each one of our souls. Much more than a husband and wife who have been apart for a year run across airports to embrace each other, so our longing is meant to be even greater for God because his longing is greater for us. There’s darkness in separation, but the hope of reunion shines in the midst of that darkness and when the encounter happens the long night is forgotten.
  • Throughout Advent our desire is supposed to be growing like we see in the Song of Songs. The purpose of the Advent wreath is to indicate what’s supposed to be happening within us, that week by week, the flame of our intense desire is meant to be doubling, tripling and quadrupling.
  • In our world, in our souls, darkness is wherever Christ doesn’t shine. And we all know that there’s a lot of darkness — anxiety, concerns, crime, war, hatred, violence, envy, poverty and neglect, abuse and manipulation — all places where Christ is evicted, where the lights are turned off, so that those one can do in the darkness what one would be ashamed to do in the light. That’s why conversion is so important during the Advent season. St. John tells us in his Gospel about Jesus, “The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil” (Jn 3:19). Jesus is coming into the world precisely to bring us into the light. That’s what Zechariah — in his famous Benedictus that we’ll hear on Christmas Eve morning— will say about the One whose way his son will prepare: “Because of the tender mercy of our God by which the Daybreak (Oriens)  from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Jesus is coming to take those of us who are sitting in darkness and the shadow of death into the path of peace, joy and light. 
  • We all need that resurrection. Pope Francis writes in his recent apostolic exhortation that many Christians behave as if they’ve always just come from a funeral, as if life is a long Lent without an Easter. We don’t live with the joy that comes from the light, like children enjoy a sunny day. The O Antiphon says “sitting in the darkness and in the shadow of death,” pointing to the fact that there’s no dynamism, there’s no movement, there’s no action. People are staying put. John the Baptist comes to get us moving inwardly toward conversion, to recognize our darkness and our need for light. Christ comes to deliver that light.
  • But how does Christ illumine the shadow of death? He does so from the inside, by himself rising. He’s coming into the world so that just as the light of the Sun rises every morning we can rise with him. Just as Mary proclaims in her Magnificat that he exalts the humble, so he even raises the dead. Rather than looking like we’ve always come from a funeral, we Christians should look as if we’re perpetually come from a resurrection — and not just Jesus’, but our own.
  • The way Jesus tries to help us to do this every day is in the Mass, when we enter into his death so that together with him we can rise from the dead. The ancient Christian Churches were always built to the East with the cruciform or basilical churches built literally ad orientem (to the East), toward where the Sun rises, to symbolize how Christ rises from the dead and takes us with him. When the priest and people faced the East together, the people were able to experience Christ’s rising like the Sun in a very way, when after the worlds of consecration, the priest would elevate the host above his head. The people would see him from behind lifting Jesus upward and holding him above so that the light of his presence might illumine our life. Today I’m not celebrating the Mass ad orientem but the same reality applies. As I raise Christ, the Radiant Dawn, to the highest point of which I’m capable, see the Sun at “high noon,” and recognize that this is a response to our prayer, “O Rising Sun in the East, splendor of eternal light and sun of justice, come, illumine those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death!” Amen!

* (There is a lack of alignment among the O Antiphons between what is used as the Gospel verse and what is used for Magnificat antiphon during Vespers. Vespers preserves the original order of the seven O Antiphons: O Sapientia (Wisdom, Dec 17), O Adonai (Lord and leader of the house of Israel, Dec 18), O Radix Iesse (Root of Jesse, Dec 19), O Clavis David (O Key of David, Dec 20), O Oriens (O Rising Sun, Dec 21), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations, Dec 22), O Emmanuel (O God-with-us, Dec 23). There is no O Antiphon for Vespers on December 24, because it is first Vespers of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. In the Gospel verses, however, while the first four days are the same (Dec 17-20), the Mass liturgies change the order of the others: O Rex Gentium is not only said on Dec 22 but repeated on Dec 23, O Emmanuel is moved from Dec 23 to Dec 21, and O Oriens is moved from Dec 21 to Dec 24, so that the words “illumine those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” will correspond to the words of Zechariah’s canticle in the Gospel. In the homilies that I’m giving throughout this proximate preparation for Christmas, I’m retaining the original order with one exception. Since on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, there is no O Antiphon at Mass, I am focusing on O Oriens at Mass today, O Rex Gentium at Mass on Dec 23 and O Emmanuel at Mass on Dec 24, since it is the culmination of all of the O Antiphons. The O Antiphons, in a sense, allow this, because all seven are saying basically the same thing under different and progressively deeper angles! I write this explanation because, as far as I have been able to find through internet searches, there is no other explanation of the disparity between the O Antiphons at Mass and at Vespers.)

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
SG 2:8-14

Hark! my lover–here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
“For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!“O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 33:2-3, 11-12, 20-21

R. (1a; 3a) Exult, you just, in the Lord! Sing to him a new song.
Give thanks to the LORD on the harp;
with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises.
Sing to him a new song;
pluck the strings skillfully, with shouts of gladness.
R. Exult, you just, in the Lord! Sing to him a new song.
But the plan of the LORD stands forever;
the design of his heart, through all generations.
Blessed the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people he has chosen for his own inheritance.
R. Exult, you just, in the Lord! Sing to him a new song.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield,
For in him our hearts rejoice;
in his holy name we trust.
R. Exult, you just, in the Lord! Sing to him a new song.

Gospel
LK 1:39-45

Mary set out in those days
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Most blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”