The O Antiphon for the Magnificat at Vespers on December 21:
O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
One of the earliest sightings of the O Antiphons in English literature is in part 1 of Cynewulf’s Christ. This collation of Advent lyrics from before the 10th century incorporates four of the seven antiphons; Cynewulf paraphrases O Dayspring in lines 105-109 and 113-119. (A modern translation by Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter follows.)
Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended,
ond soðfæsta sunnan leoma,
torht ofer tunglas, þu tida gehwane
of sylfum þe symle inlihtes! …
swa þec nu for þearfum þin agen geweorc
bideð þurh byldo, þæt þu þa beorhtan us
sunnan onsende, ond þe sylf cyme
þæt ðu inleohte þa þe longe ær,
þrosme beþeahte ond in þeostrum her,
sæton sinneahtes; synnum bifealdne
deorc deaþes sceadu dreogan sceoldan.
“Hail shining ray! Hail brightest of angels
and illumination of the soothfast sun
sent over middle-earth to all mankind,
more brilliant than the stars—always
you light up every season of your own self! …
so now needfully your own creation
abides you faithfully, so that you send us
the bright sun, and that you come yourself
to illuminate those who for the longest time,
shrouded in shadow and in darkness here,
reside in the everlasting night—
enfolded in our sins, they have had to endure
the dark shadows of death.”
If admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien feel a familiar frisson here — well, they should! In Cynewulf’s expansion of “O Dayspring” — specifically, in the word “earendel” — we find one of the deepest linguistic roots of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. From that word sprang the work of his heart that occupied him for nearly six decades — The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. Tolkien even riffs on Cynewulf (and thus indirectly on today’s antiphon) on pp. 248-249 of The Silmarillion:
Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope! Hail Eärendil, bearer of light before the Sun and Moon! Splendour of the Children of Earth, star in the darkness, jewel in the sunset, radiant in the morning!
Healey Willan (1880-1968), professor at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and organist at St. Mary Magdalene Church in the same city, composed a setting of The Great O Antiphons of Advent for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Concordia Publishing House in 1957. Here’s Willan’s setting of “O Dayspring,” as sung by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia:
O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
— Rick Krueger
(Image: O Oriens by Linda Witte Henke, Te Deum Designs.)