An old Jewish tradition says that the first time Adam witnessed the sun set, he grieved all through the night. He was unaware of the dawn. In his mind, the disappearance of the sun and the advent of darkness could mean only one thing: the sun was dead and darkness now reigned unchallenged.
Legend though it is, this tradition captures an almost universal human experience.
There comes a time in almost everyone’s life when we feel like the rays of light and hope and joy have been extinguished. Darkness alone remains. We sit and grieve in a kind of nocturnal exile. In our hearts, there is a quivering fear that, though we are alive, the sun is dead, dawn has been aborted, and a long and brutal winter of darkness stares at us through frozen eyes of contempt.
Moms and dads who weep beside small coffins know this darkness all too well. Couples whose marriages have been chainsawed into bloody halves know this darkness as well. We could spend all day going through examples of hurting people in hurting situations who hurt themselves, hurt others, and are themselves hurt by the sharp and merciless edges of a world that often feels like a sadistic machine designed to make our existence “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In grim irony, this time of year, full of first noels and colorful lights and tinseled trees, is often the hardest time of the year for many. I can’t help but wonder if some people are thanking God for masks during this 2020 Christmas so they don’t have to go around pasting on a smile to cover a weeping heart.
For all these reasons, perhaps today’s “O Antiphon” is the most fitting for such a time as this. On December 21, the church sings to Christ:
“O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (LSB #357).
The “dayspring” is, as the word suggests, when the day begins to spring. Dayspring occurs when the first glowing hints of light appear on the eastern horizon to signal that night is coming to an end. In Hebrew, the word is shachar. For instance, when the Messenger of Yahweh (i.e., the Son of God) wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok River, he did so until shachar, “until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32:24).
Night was a time for fighting with God. Night was a time for struggle. And when the dayspring happened, when the night was coming to an end, God blessed Jacob. He gave him the name Israel, which means “God-Fighter.” The dayspring was the occasion on which the Lord admitted that he had lost and that his child had won.
The God of love, whose blessing came at dayspring, was glad to be bested by his beloved.
Bested by His Beloved
I can think of no better way to picture what Jesus our Dayspring does for us, individually and corporately. He came to Jacob in the middle of the night. He comes to us who are sitting in darkness and the shadow of death (Isa. 9:2). We may be sitting on our couch at home or in a funeral home. We may be sitting in our car on a long drive home, in a prison cell cut off from our family, or in rehab wondering how we managed to screw up our lives so drastically.
Wherever we are, Jesus shows up, ready for a fight. We may be “all in,” boiling with anger and hurt, ready to slap and jab and claw and bite, to get our pound of divine flesh. Or we may be “all out,” too weakened, too battered to throw a single punch.
Either way, Jesus is there to fight.
And, when all is said and done,
to lose so that we might win.
Christ was born into the darkness of the world to swallow that darkness whole. To suck in the void of death and despair and hatred and shame and pain. To make it his. To make it all his. He came to experience the mad jealousy of Herod, the razored words of the religious elite, the frigid kiss of his betrayer, the spit of the crowds, the hammer of the nails, the boredom of the executioners just “doing their duty.”
And whatever personal hell you are experiencing—self-created or otherwise—he came to take that into himself as well. To fight you for it. To fight you and me and Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees and every other sinner.
And, gasping for breath, to say Tetelestai. It’s over. Finished. I lost. You won.
When that moment happens, when death dies in Jesus, when sins are sinned away in his passing, when hell is burnt to ashes in his final breath, then—Do you see it? Look!—there, on the horizon, there the long-awaited dayspring appears.
Light is alive and darkness is dead!
God has lost and we have won!
And no one is happier than Jesus.
He has been bested by his beloved. He gives us all new names: we are Israel. We are the God-Fighters. We have struggled with God, rolled on the mat of death and despair and darkness, and he has let us take home the gold.
From the east to the west, from heaven to hell, through all the galaxies of stars, resounds the laughter of Jesus as he steps forth alive from his grave to run a victory lap with us on his resurrection shoulders. Joy, oh, joy to us! Our God is alive. And we are alive in him.
The night will not win. The night has not won. Our Dayspring from on high, the splendor of light everlasting, has come to us. Morning breaks eternal in the face of our God, Jesus Christ.
*In tomorrow’s article, we will look at “O King of the Nations"