This week contains the shortest days of the year, as well as one last opportunity to ponder the season of Advent. This is the turning point. Days now begin to gradually lengthen, and that for which we are waiting will soon be with us. In my mind’s ear I hear the bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah singing:
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
I was probably well into early adulthood before I realized that it was actually the prophet Isaiah, and not Handel, who wrote about this time of darkness and the coming of a great light.
There is one hymn in particular which captures the urgency of our longing – for light, for salvation, for hope, for knowledge, for connection. O come, O come Emmanuel, expresses all that Advent holds for us, and takes us to a place of contemplation and quiet anticipation. Its medieval text and tune – written separately and of uncertain sources – are mysterious and comforting at the same time.
These “O” antiphons, as the words are known, are adaptations of medieval texts that were (and still are in some places) sung before and after the chanting of the Magnificat, one each in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what those dates before each verse of Hymn #56 in The Hymnal 1982 meant?
Each of the seven different verses of Veni Emmanuel begins with a salutation in the form of a name for God, and then a petition based on that name:
(December 17) O Sapienta –
O come, thou Wisdom, to us the path of knowledge show
(December 18) O Adonai –
O come, thou Lord of might, that didst give the law
(December 19) O Radix Jesse –
O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree, give them victory o’er the grave
(December 20) O Clavis David –
O come, thou Key of David, make safe the way that leads on high
(December 21) O Oriens –
O come, thou Dayspring from on high, disperse the gloomy clouds of night
(December 22) O Rex gentium –
O come, Desire of nations, be thyself our King of Peace
(December 23) O Emmanuel –
O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, the first line of the Magnificat, is Mary’s marvelous response to Gabriel’s news that she would bear a son. If only we were all able to be as open-hearted and accepting of God’s plan for us. With each verse of O come, O come Emmanuel we are summoning God into our lives, but there needs to be room in our hearts for all the ways that God might open our minds and cause us to change.
The duality of Advent includes the knowledge that we are awaiting something which we already have – God’s love. Light and dark, joy and penance, a baby both human and divine. The very word Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God with us,” suggests reality, however, and not just a hope. We sing our invitation with Veni Emmanuel. Be ready then to make room.