O Oriens: O Morning Star

by
14 December 2018

Jane Williams explores another of the ‘The Great Os’ of Advent

Ivan Vdovin/Alamy

The Harrowing of Hell, 14th-century painting from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

The Harrowing of Hell, 14th-century painting from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

THOSE of us who live in brightly lit towns and cities may not know what it is to wait with longing for the morning star, visible when all around is still dark, heralding the approach of daylight. Where there is no artificial light, the morning star brings a slight but marked alteration in the quality of the surrounding darkness.

It hovers tantalisingly on the edge of dark and daylight. It is perhaps this liminal quality that makes it a powerful Advent title for Jesus: as we wait for this birth that heralds God’s conquest of the dark, we are still in a contested world, one where the darkness still seems in control, and yet there is the glimmer of light as the one star emerges.

In the Bible, light and dark are often motifs that circle around choice and judgement. In Romans 13.12, salvation is the bright day we are longing for, just over the horizon, and now is the time of the morning star; soon it will be broad daylight, and we must be ready for all our deeds to be seen.

There is a mixture of hope and fear in these motifs, as we both long for and shrink from the life-giving, revelatory light. We cannot live without it, but, somehow, we have persuaded ourselves that our grey, half-lit lives are enough.

The coming of the day is inexorable: nothing can hold it back, no one can delay it, and yet it comes so gently that it is hard to say at which precise moment the day starts and the night is definitely over. Like so many of the Advent themes, this calls us to reimagine the power of God at work in Jesus.

 

THE Harrowing of Hell, from Jerez de la Frontera, shows us the contrast between different kinds of power. In the background, filling the top of the picture, is the huge hell-monster, full of teeth and flames, with enraged, inflamed eyes. Its dark minions, shooting flame from their mouths, try to terrify the timid human beings, moving wonderingly towards the light.

The men and women are packed together, hardly able to move, naked and defenceless, and yet their eyes are alight with hope, and each one has the beginning of a small smile. They had thought that daylight was gone for ever, and yet, suddenly, the great jaws have opened, and there is nothing to prevent their simply stepping out.

Their rescuer, Jesus, has no visible weapons. He is barefoot, with the marks of the nails still visible. He carries nothing but a slender staff of light, and yet he cannot be stopped. Adam has taken the outstretched, wounded hand confidently, climbing out of the jaws of death; beside him, Eve looks more anxious, still clutching her apple. It is almost as though she half-doubts whether she deserves this. But her progeny are pressing forward, and soon she will step into the light, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.

 

AS WE watch, history is being rewritten. The history of the human race used to be a history of endless failure and despair, leading to death and darkness. Each individual history, like Eve’s, used to be a story of what we have done wrong and cannot undo once we realise the cost. But then here is Jesus, treading lightly over the cinders and the serpents, carrying the wounds of all our viciousness and failure, but refusing to accept that they tell the whole story.

The story of the world was never ours to ruin and take into endless night; the world belongs to God, and, in Jesus Christ, God tells the story over. It is still pitiful and terrible, but now it ends differently.

The child whose birth we are awaiting is, like all children, born to die. But he dies in order to reclaim death and judgement as the province of God; it no longer belongs to the fanged monster of darkness, but to the coming day.

When Eve finally plucks up courage and steps out of the monster’s jaws, she gives her apple to Jesus, who takes it, breaks it, and offers it as life for the world. She just has to be brave and humble enough to believe that Jesus has the power to remake the meaning of the apple.

That is no slight thing: all this time, the story of the apple has been one of the terrible power she wielded, and it has made her who she is. Now she must choose if she is willing to be the daughter of the living one, rather than the mother of all those who must die.

 

For reflection or discussion

What do you think your “apple” is — the thing that both forms and deforms you?

Do we believe it is really possible for people to change?

 

Come, Holy Spirit, and lift our eyes to the bright day dawning in Jesus Christ. Give us courage to live as children of the light, for the glory of God the Father. Amen.

 

The text is from The Art of Advent: A painting a day from Advent to Epiphany (SPCK Publishing, 2018, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)).

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