Numbers 24:16 “I see Him, but not yet; I behold Him, but only faintly in the distance. A Star will come out of Jacob; a Scepter will rise out of Israel.”
Psalm 139:11-12 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Isaiah 9:1-2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
Revelation 22:16 “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
Malachi 4:2: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. “For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”
Luke 1:68-79 – The Benedictus / Song of Zechariah: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Ephesians 2:17-22 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Robert J. Morgan wrote a devotional-style book 10 years ago about the history behind the hymns of our faith. In the book “Then Sings My Soul” he writes: “Hymns help us praise God. They are shafts of brilliant sunlight through the clouds. They provide an almost mystical connection with the endless anthems of praise raising at this very moment before the heavenly throne. They unite the Lord’s earth-bound church in heavenly harmony.” There are many of us who continue to find deep spiritual communion with and connection to God in singing the hymns of our faith. And it’s useful to our spiritual lives to learn about the history of some of the hymns we sing.
400 years ago a plague broke out throughout Europe in the late 16th century. Philip Nikolai wrote a chorale to comfort those suffering from the plague. The words echo the theme of one of our antiphons for today, O come thou Dayspring, captured in the 6th verse of O Come, O come Emmanuel. This hymn is usually sung during the liturgical season of Epiphany, because of the imagery of light.
O Morning Star, how fair and bright thou beamest forth in truth and light,
O Sovereign meek and lowly! Thou Root of Jesse, David’s Son,
my Lord and Master, thou hast won my heart to serve thee solely!
Thou art holy, fair and glorious, rich in blessing, rule and might o’er all possessing.
One of the names for the Messiah in scripture is “DaySpring.” This name is referenced in Luke 1 in what is called the Benedictus, The Song of Zechariah. The passage from Luke paraphrases a prophecy from Malachi: “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” Those are the last words in the Hebrew Scriptures, written 400 years before birth of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, the first thing we read about is the conversation the Angel Gabriel has with the priest, Zechariah about the birth of John the Baptist. The passage Bill & Vicki read for us contain the first words spoken by Zechariah after the angel Gabriel silenced him when he expressed disbelief that his wife Elizabeth, would bear a son in her older years. After the child’s birth, the people want to call him Zechariah after his father. But Elizabeth says “No! He is to be called John!” And Zechariah miraculously backs her up. Afterward, he poetically addresses his newborn son singing:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, because of the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”.
The elderly father rejoices because God has broken through and offered a response in the midst of many years of longing and waiting. It is like the radiance of the morning sun after a long, dark night.
If you have ever gotten up before sunrise, there is something about the first sign of light breaking into the darkness of night, gradually getting lighter with each passing minute. The literal dispelling of darkness. It is a moment, of being reminded that the mercies of God are new every morning.
In monasteries and abbeys throughout the world, monks and nuns of religious orders awake early in the morning to pray the hours. The Liturgy of the Hours is a rhythm of prayer set to specific hours of the day. In the sixth century, St Benedict formalized the practice by naming each hour, and it has since formed the basis of prayer for many monastics. The service chanted at daybreak is called Lauds. Monastic communities welcome the day by singing the the Morning Canticle, called Benedictus. It is the Canticle of Zechariah about God’s Word becoming incarnate, breaking forth in the light of day.
When Angie and I were part of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, we concluded the day with night prayer, heading off to our rooms in silence like Zechariah. We did not speak again until we gathered for morning prayer the next day. The first words out of our mouths each day was this prayer:
New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.
Following this prayer we sang the Canticle of Zechariah:
In the tender compassion of our God, the morning sun from heaven will rise upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the cloud of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
I never made the connection until now, that my spiritual life was being formed by the ancient words of the Canticle of Zechariah and by the O Antiphon from the 6th verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here. Our spirits, which are filled with longing, are cheered by the appearance of Dayspring. The clouds of night are dispersed, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. In the words of Malachi, those who trust in God will leap forth, whole and full of energy, like young calves leaping from the stall. That’s what Dayspring will bring. It echoes Isaiah 9:2:
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shined.”
In Revelation 22:16 we hear the words -“It is I, Jesus. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
The Canticle of Zechariah ends with these words: The Dawn from on high will guide our feet into the way of peace”. This leads right into the antiphon,
O Come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; Make envy, strife, and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
The biblical reference for this antiphon comes from two places in scripture: the familiar passage of scripture from Isaiah 2 which we heard the Berry family read:
God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.
And then there is an obscure verse from Haggai 2:7 that only the KJV captures:
“The Lord says, “I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory.”
We hear this line in an obscure verse I don’t ever recall singing in the Christmas Carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing, written by Charles Wesley.
Come, Desire of nations, come! Fix in us Thy humble home.
The 3rd verse, which is much more familiar, names the two antiphons we are exploring today:
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings.
The first phrase, Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! references the Antiphon Come, Desire of Nations. The next phrase, Hail the Sun of righteousness! is about Dayspring. And I am putting something together that I never realized before – that last line “Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings” comes directly from Malachi 4:2. It is good to realize how much scripture we actually have memorized because of the hymns of the faith we sing.
Come Desire of Nations. What is it that we truly desire? What do the nations desire? The true desire of our hearts, is not necessarily about stuff, or the material things found on our Christmas lists. What the ancients longed for, and what we long for is for God to come and bind together all people in one heart and mind. We pray for envy, strife, and discord to cease. We ask God to fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Could that be what we long for when we pray, “O Come, Desire of Nations?” It is easy to argue for more weapons, more violence, more fear. But it has been said that “courage is fear that has said its prayers.” The verse we heard from Ephesians reminds us that we are “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” to live peaceably with one another.
This Christmas may we discover in story, in song, in memory, the reality that monastic communities affirm at the first light of each day: the abiding presence of the loving tenderness and compassion of God’s own heart, a mercy which comes quietly and persistently, like the dawn, to bring light to our darkness, that guides our feet into the way of peace.
Let us sing along with Neva these ancient words asking Christ to come. O come thou Dayspring & O come Desire of nations. Amen.