It was odd coming back from Evening Prayer tonight… for the first time I noticed that there weren’t so many lights on the outsides of houses this year. No enormous blow-up snowmen or Santas climbing walls – and just a few flashing icicles and snowflakes – and, bizarrely, one Father Christmas on a penny-farthing! (Obviously a new tradition in the making there!)
It’s as if the financial gloom is being translated into a literal gloom with fewer lights to brighten dull winter nights. Perhaps it speaks too of an inner gloom besetting the minds and hearts of people as the fears of unemployment and loss of income take hold. Faced with massive uncertainty, people seem to become stuck in wintriness and losing faith that things will get better – and it is true that the light on the horizon is very faint for many people at present.
But as we approach the darkness of the longest night, we know (somewhere very deep down) that the nights will begin to draw out and light will prove stronger than the darkness. As we approach the feast of Christmas – with its timing at the darkest part of the year – we may be lighting the third and fourth candles of Advent wreaths and seeing the increase in light reminding us of this. On the other hand, Advent candles are gradually burning down – and the chocolates in the Advent calendars running out!
We are also coming up to the pre-Christmas Octave and the time of the O Antiphons – the antiphons that open the praying of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer in the days leading up to Christmas. These are a rich source of images and thoughts for prayer – for the dark time of year and the chill of economic troubles – drawn as they are from a heritage of faith of people who lived through their own dark times – of slavery – of Exile – of longing for a shoot of hope from long-dead tree.
Even if time does not permit the praying of the whole of the Evening Prayer of the Church, it could be worth finding the antiphon for each day (see below) and praying it – and the Magnificat – and praying that the prophecies and promises of God intervening in the world will be fulfilled. We can explore the Divine Office and its role in the prayer life of the whole Church – and then unpack the meaning of the Antiphons a little with our catechumens and candidates.
The opening words of the Antiphons form titles of Christ – and the links between the dates and the titles are as follows
17 December – O Wisdom
18 December – O Adonai (an ancient name of God)
19 December – O stock of Jesse
20 December – O key of David
21 December – O Rising Sun
22 December – O King…
23 December – O Immanuel…
And, as a thought for Christmas Eve, we could add, though not a title of Christ, an acknowledgement of the woman who made it possible with
24 December – Blessed is she…
There is a variety of places to find the O Antiphons – in the Office books for starters but also online – at http://www.universalis.com/ for example. A daily reflection on them with a Scripture reading and questions can be found from http://www.wellsprings.org.uk/o_antiphons/index.htm
As people become – like those in the time of Isaiah – people who walk in darkness, we can point them to the promise of Light… to the One whose titles span the centuries – the One who is Emmanuel, God in it with us.