On Friday evening I was invited to attend the Williams School service of Lessons and Carols in Christ and Saint Luke Church. When I arrived at the school, all the students were lining up with the lanterns and candles forming a procession to the church. On the way to the school, I noticed churches announcing candlelight Christmas Eve services as well as so many candles in the windows of homes with Christmas trees, with lights shining in the darkness of the streets.
This scene gave me pause to ponder why candlelight always attracts us. My thoughts turned to the chant “O come, O come, Emmanuel” that the Roman Church has been chanting for almost 1200 years during the season of Advent. This chant holds a treasure trove of biblical imagery drawing from the Messianic hopes of the prophets of ancient Israel.
The Antiphon that came to mind as I meditated on all the illumination piercing the darkness of the night was this antiphon:
O radiant dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of Justice,
Come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the church praises God with these words:
O heavens let the just one come forth like the dew,
let him descend from the clouds like the rain.
The earth will open up and give birth to the Savior.
This wonderful Introit is inspired from the prophetic text of Isaiah. The dew that comes down from above is the eternal Word who takes upon himself our humanity, our earthliness, and comes forth from the Virgin Mary who gives birth to the Incarnate eternal Word of God.
When I saw the students at Williams School processing to Christ and Saint Luke with lanterns and candles it reminded me of the Rorate Mass. This is another ancient liturgical tradition that is practiced in Austria, Germany, Hungary, and in Poland, and I have noticed of late in Washington, DC and New York and other cities, a pre-dawn mass called Rorate, the word being drawn from the Introit on the fourth Sunday. People come to church early in the morning before the sun rises, with lanterns and candles to celebrate Mass by candlelight in honor of the Virgin Mary. As Mass proceeds and the sun rises the church becomes progressively brighter and illuminated by the sun, as our faith is illuminated by Christ; which evokes that beautiful antiphon again:
O radiant light, splendor of eternal day.
During these final days of Advent, take some time to walk through the neighborhood in the cold of the night marveling at all the lights dispelling the darkness. Each light is proclaiming that the gospel “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal life” has come into the world, the Word made flesh and dwelt among us.
A boy with a lantern. Nuremberg, December 2014.