Breaking Dawn: Antiphon for December 21

by Roger Paavola

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high, And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death’s dark shadows put to flight. – Antiphon for December 21

Drawing from the inspired Messianic prophesies in Isaiah, Malachi and Zechariah and the proclamations penned by the apostles Matthew and Luke, the Benedictus (found in the liturgy of Morning Prayer) reminds us of God’s fulfilled promise in Christ. It remains our great Advent plea: for Christ to come to us again. Along with the six other “O Antiphons” that highlight the last seven days of our Advent worship, the fifth antiphon splashes its prophetic light into our dark world in the birth of the high priest Zechariah’s son John. The once-muted Zechariah’s first words after his son’s birth were recorded as praise to God: “And you, my child, shall be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (LSB 239–240).

These inspired words link Old Testament Messianic prophecy to New Testament fulfillment. The fifth antiphon—the Oriens (the East)–came from the familiar twelfth-century Psalter:

“O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,

And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.” (LSB 357)

The rising of the first beams of light in our pre-dawn Eastern sky signals the beginning of a new day. Like the iridescent array in a pre-dawn morning announces the coming of a greater light, the Orien’s antiphon tells of a greater Light that is coming. The forerunner of Christ, John the Baptizer, “came to bear witness about the Light” (John 6:8) just as each dawn in nature sheds its first light of dawn, but not the sun. A mightier, brighter and perfect light is on His way.

Zechariah gave a great prophetic illustration of our daily reminder of God’s continue providence. As we watch the created splendor as another day arises, a new day of our life in Christ is dawning! Christ Jesus is the Light of our new day and new life in Him. From the very first chapter of Genesis where uncreated Light brought life to the void, to the revealed Light at His birth (John 1:4–5, 9) and to the radiance of His Transfiguration, the unmistakable Light of Christ is and will always remain the Light to our blessed hope of life and salvation. John the Baptizer’s role was to bear witness to God’s fulfilling grace. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Christ’s incarnation perfectly gathers every ancient prophecy of God’s promised Messiah, culminating in Zechariah’s prophecy, given by the Holy Spirit, that Christ was coming to our world.

Christ Jesus–God enfleshed in our nature–continues to fulfill God’s promise to our fallen race. His incarnation conjoins the impossible–Christ’s perfect life given for the express purpose of being our substitute in the righteous judgment of God against our sin. At Christ’s crucifixion, darkness covered the light of the sun. God’s Son–Christ on the cross – paid the penalty of our sin and the sins of all the world. Yet the darkness of sin and death did not overcome the Light of Christ (John 1:5).The dense darkness of sin, death and lifelessness was defeated by the uncreated Light of Christ. In dazzling brilliance, He arose in human flesh, victorious over our deadly sentence. Sin, death and Satan’s dark shroud no longer cause us fear. “[T]he people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Is. 42:7). Our Advent worship brings us once again to this place where we ponder this mystery: God’s perfect Son sacrificed for an imperfect and corrupt people. Yet God, in His divine foreknowledge and grace and justice, knew you and I need a Savior.

The Oriens antiphon is the bookend to our great anticipation and celebratory joy, reminding us anew that nothing shines more brightly within this mystery than God’s amazing love, mercy and peace. Advent worship turns our attention and prayers to a merciful God, that His Spirit would “lift up our heads” to see our righteous King coming as the Light of our life. Because of Christ’s incarnation, resurrection and His means of grace, the darkness of sin, death and Satan have no power over us. Through His means of grace, we are joined together into the perfect life of Christ.

Even today, we are comforted, as King David prophesied, that death is but a mere dark shadow (Ps. 23:4) for those who live by grace through faith in Christ. Jesus said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in Me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). God’s Word is our Light. Our living Savior shines through the world’s darkness and welcomes us to His gracious embrace. Even though we live in a world where Christians are mocked, persecuted and executed , we pray the light of Christ may fill our lives with the ultimate Advent and Christmas joy: “To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Let this be our blessed assurance: “The King shall come when morning dawns

And Light triumphant breaks When beauty gilds the eastern hills And life to joy awakes” (LSB 348).

The Rev. Roger Paavola is president of the LCMS Mid-South District.

**This article was originally published in the December 2013 The Lutheran Witness

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