O morning star, splendour of the light eternal and bright sun of righteousness, come and bring light to those who dwell in darkness and walk in the shadow of death.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
You can listen to this antiphon, sung in its original Latin form, here
The image of Christ as the sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings comes from the prophecy in Malachi, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2b)
It’s a very familiar, seasonal image because it figures in Charles Wesley’s well-known carol, “Hark, the herald angels sing.” which Wesley based partly on Malachi and partly on the words of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes. Andrewes was an extraordinarily vivid (although lengthy!) 17th C preacher who inspired a number of subsequent writers: Charles Wesley’s carol and TS ELiot’s “The Coming of the Magi” for starters. Here are a few snippets from his Christmas 1619 sermon that will seem familiar to any singer of “Hark the herald”:
“Much good-will before, never so as when God and man, the Godhead and manhood meet both in one. God never so pleased, as when he was pleased to assume it into one person with himself, uniting both with the straightest union that can be.”
“There is a part of divinity that dazzles; if we look too long on it, we may well lose our sight.”
“Time in music is much. And if we keep time with the angels, do it when they do it – this day… When should the hymn of Christ’s birth be better sung than on Christ’s birthday?”
“The same glory that was able to bring the Son of God from heaven into earth, shall have the like power to lift up the sons of men from earth, to the glory of heaven, there with the blessed angels to sing this glorious hymn eternally.”
(Lancelot Andrewes, Sermon preached before King James at Whitehall, Saturday 25th December 1619.)
The imagery, both in Andrewes’ sermon and Wesley’s carol, is wonderfully graphic:
“Hark! the herald angels sing
glory to the new-born King;
peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled;
joyful all ye nations rise,
join the triumph of the skies,
with the angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
Hark, the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born king!”
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come
offspring of a Virgin’s womb!
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hail the heaven-born prince of peace!
Hail the sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings.
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth.”
To watch the sun rise over the horizon, even in our sophisticated 21st C world, is still a profound experience, especially in the northern hemisphere in winter, when the sun’s light is in short supply. It is, perhaps, the nearest visual experience we may get of God’s glory this side of eternity. It speaks of the energy at the heart of all creation, of which we are a tiny part. It reminds us of our smallness in the cosmic scheme of things. It reassures us of the ongoing cycle of seasons and days and the new possibilities each day offers and God’s underlying presence in each one.
Something to read: St Matthew 17:1-9
Something to wonder about: Where do you find reminders of God’s glory in the world? St Irenaeus once wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”. (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses IV.xxxiv.7) How might you inhabit that idea and make it your own?
Something to take it further: Get up in time to see the sun rise. (If you live locally, here in Oxfordshire, in the UK, that means 8.05 am today, 15th December 2017 and and 8.06 am tomorrow but it will vary depending on where you live, whether in the UK or elsewhere.) Sing “Hark the herald angels” to yourself and think about what the words might mean for you, personally.