Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light

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Second Saturday of Advent

Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11
Psalm 79: 80:2ac and 3b, 15-16, 18-19
Matthew 17:9a, 10-13

The Splendour of Your Glory in the Face of Christ

Almighty God,
let the splendour of your glory, we pray,
rise like the dayspring in our hearts
to dispel every darkness of the night;
that the advent of your only-begotten Son,
may reveal us to be children of the light.

Today’s Collect is the fruit of a long contemplation of the light that shines from the Scriptures: another example of the oratio — prayer — that is the fruit of lectio —hearing the Word — and of meditatio — repeating it. The splendour of the Father’s glory that rises like the dawn in our hearts is Christ, “the reflection of the glory of God” (Heb 1:3). “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the Face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

O Dayspring

The Jews of old expected the advent of the Messiah in the radiance of a rising sun. Isaiah cries, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60:1). Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist blesses God, saying, “The Orient shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:78-79). The Church, on December 21st, will sing, “O Dayspring, brightness of eternal Light and Sun of Justice: come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

The Light of Bethlehem

Christ’s first advent in the cave of Bethlehem, marked by the rising of a star in the night, was a mystery of light. “In Him was life,” says Saint John, “and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).

Until the Morning Star Rises in Your Hearts

Christ’s final advent on the clouds of heaven will be a mystery of light. Saint Peter, referring to the word of the prophets confirmed by the Father’s utterance on Mount Thabor, says, “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in the darkness, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 P 1:19).

The Advents of Grace

The advent of Christ in the Word, His advent in the Eucharistic Mystery, and every secret advent of His by the working of grace in our hearts, are mysteries of light, dispelling darkness, and changing us “into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

A Burning and Shining Lamp

The prophets and saints are figures of fire and light against the background of a world grown cold and dark. The First Lesson said that “Elijah arose like a fire, and his word burned like a torch” (Sir 48:1). In the Responsorial Psalm, Israel is consumed with longing for the light that shines from the face of God: “Let Thy face shine, that we may be saved” (Ps 79:4). In the Gospel Jesus speaks of John the Baptist. In another passage he says, concerning John: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a while to rejoice in his light” (Jn 5:35).

Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light

A popular Lutheran Christmas hymn by Johann Rist expresses something of what the Church invites us to pray in today’s Collect. You have probably sung it to the familiar melody harmonized by J. S. Bach:

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
and usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with affright,
but hear the angel's warning.
This child, now weak in infancy,
our confidence and joy shall be,
the power of Satan breaking,
our peace eternal making.

The background of this Christmas hymn is less well known. While Rist was in Rostock, studying Hebrew, mathematics and medicine, the Thirty Years War almost emptied the University. For weeks, Rist lay alone in a darkened room, suffering from the pestilence. One understands the prayer that rose in his heart: Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, and usher in the morning.

And Usher in the Morning

Each of us lives in his or her own darkened sick room, isolated and struggling with secret pestilences of the soul. In each of us there is a desire to pray, Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, and usher in the morning. Though beauteous, the inbreaking of the light can be painful. We grow accustomed to living in the spaces of our confinement. Darkness, though oppressive and gloomy, becomes strangely comfortable to one whose spiritual eyes have grown dim and weak. Light, though lovely and radiant, can be a threatening thing. “If I let in the light I will have to change. If I open my eyes to the light I will begin to see myself, and others, and the things around me differently.”

Lumen Christi

It is a risky thing to enter wholeheartedly into the prayer of the Church, to pray the liturgy without reservations. The Dayspring waits to rise in our hearts. The “beauteous heavenly light” waits to break into the shuttered darkness of our soul’s sickroom. It is a question of wanting it. When, at the moment of Holy Communion, one says “Amen” to “The Body of Christ,” one is saying, “Amen” to the Light of Christ. Corpus Christi, Lumen Christi, Amen. “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). “Come to Him and be illumined: and your faces shall not be put to shame” (Ps 33:6).

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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