Advent 4 – Veni Emmanuel

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.

Veni Emmanuel – instrumental version, with photos from the Holy Land


Advent 3 – Carols

In his Preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Percy Dearmer, one of the editors of that  collection, begins with a description of carols that I simply cannot top: Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. With roots in the country dances of 15th and 16th century Europe, the hilarity of hard-working people at play is sometimes quite evident in the carols we still sing, such as God rest you merry, gentlemen…Good Christian friends, rejoice…Deck the halls.  

The medieval “miracle” plays of 14th and 15th century England – so-called because they dramatized the miracles and momentous events of Christ’s incarnation and life – were an early source of songs about Christ’s birth written in the vernacular. Performed outside the church by members of the various guilds, livelier dance tunes eventually replaced more serious forms of church-approved music. Carols were born from that great flowering of humanism in the 15th century, as a reaction to the contemplative plainsong of the Church and heavy-handed theological thinking which frowned on joy. Because carols were linked to dance music, they were regarded with some suspicion by church leaders and then abolished by Cromwell in 1647.

Carols remained an underground form of music-making by rural folks during the puritanical 17th and 18th centuries, but singing them was almost extinct by the time Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843. The word “carol” had come to signify Christmas poems and stories without music. It was the discovery in 1852 of a medieval Swedish book, the Piae Cantiones, from which we have several popular carols today, together with a growing appreciation and scientific interest in collecting folk music in the late 19th century, which gave impetus to the revival of carol singing.

Carols are simple and popular, so says Dearmer in his extended preface to what is an invaluable source of Christmas carols, because “the typical carol gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood and music that can be shared by all.”

But modern? We don’t usually think about carols as an expression of current times, yet anything which lasts for hundreds of years expresses in some way the timeless ideas of its own age. A 19th century American carol, It came upon a midnight clear, found in The Hymnal 1982 at #89, was authored by a Unitarian minister for a population on the brink of civil war. He didn’t write about the birth of Christ, but rather about angels and “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.”  And then, in verse 3:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!

Hardly hilarious, but sadly timeless.

It’s not always easy, and never really necessary, to make a clear distinction between hymns and carols, but one broadly stated difference could be that the tune takes precedence in carols, and the text does so in hymns.  Or perhaps carols could be defined by their danceability!

Percy Dearmer ends his preface, written in 1928, with yet more quotable words: Perhaps nothing is just now of such importance as to increase the element of joy in religion; people crowd in our churches at the Christmas and Easter Festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity.

Sound hilarity. That is something to which we might aspire in our carol singing!


Advent 2 – Dichotomy

This painting by German artist Beate Heinen captures for me the dual nature of Advent, the liturgical season which begins the church year with four Sundays preceding Christmas. During this time we arManger and Cross, Beate Heinene called to joy and penance in equal measure.  It is a season which reflects the darkness of the natural world and the candles of our inner light, beginnings and end times, the comfort of God’s word and the discomfort of the prophets’ words which we hear in the readings throughout these four Sundays of Advent.

“Manger and the Cross” is the painting’s title, and both of those symbols of our faith reveal God’s love for us. I find beauty in its complete representation of the story we begin each Advent, and as I look at it I am reminded of a poem I discovered some years ago as a text for a piece of music. Though I find the poem incredibly moving, I’ve never found quite the right time to program a song which is planted so firmly in both Advent and Lent. The words are by Dorothy Parker, the American poet best known for her wit and wisecracks.

Prayer for a New Mother

The things she knew, let her forget again-
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.

Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.


May you find these weeks of Advent to be a time of comfort and discomfort, joy and penance, questions and answers, a time of resting and a time of moving towards light and rebirth.  And as Parker hopes for Mary, a time of learning how to let laughter and dreams triumph over our knowledge of life’s dark places.


Advent 1 – Anticipation

You are invited to a service of Advent Lessons and Carols
 Sunday, December 3 at 5:00       St. John’s, Norwood
Music and readings for a time of anticipation

The season of Advent is, above all, a time of watching and waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God. Science tells us that it is anticipation of reward, and not the reward itself, which causes dopamine to be released in our brains, so a reflective time of preparation may have even more value than we realize. While there is a sense of restraint and watchfulness during any time of anticipation, we have the luxury of also feeling a confident joy as Christmas approaches. We happen to know that this time of waiting ends with the birth of a baby who changes the world.

This story of prophecies and promises fulfilled plays out in the context of a single Lessons and Carols service this Sunday afternoon, as well as across the four Sundays of Advent. Churches all over the world base their services of Lessons and Carols on the celebrated Christmas Eve service at King’s College, Cambridge, which traditionally begins with the single voice of a young chorister singing the first verse of Once in royal David’s city. Fear not, there will be plenty of traditional carols during the season of Christmas, but this Sunday’s 5:00 pm service of Lessons and Carols requires something different than the carols of Christmas. We’ll sing music of this season, the Advent season, and not the songs of mall shopping and popular culture. Together with the lessons, this is a service which seeks to nurture anticipation in each of us.

The Power of Story

Where do mystery and reason meet? One might argue, and certainly Joseph Campbell did so in his book and 1988 television series “The Power of Myth,” that they meet in theology. Both mystery and reason attempt, in their own ways, to illuminate truths of who we are and what we believe. It seems to me that, unlike reason, mystery’s truths cannot be defined solely by our five senses, however, and that, I think, gives more power to the stories we tell – stories about lamps needing oil and voices in the wilderness and angels bringing surprising news. Like music, the mysteries of faith take us to truths that are best expressed in feelings which go beyond words. Feelings of hope, inclusion, wonder, comfort, longing, anticipation…


The Moment to Decide

Thou that hast given so much to me
give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
as if Thy blessings had spare days —
but such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

from “Gratefulness” by George Herbert

Cultivating, expressing, and living a life of gratitude are decisions we each make for ourselves. Feeling grateful can come from a place of abundance in our lives, but I have a feeling it comes more often from a place of scarcity, or even despair. Those moments when we are stripped down to a basic level of survival – be that emotional or physical survival – and we somehow summon gratitude for another day, a kindness shown, or even just an awareness that our pain is a sign that we have loved and been loved. These are clear connections with God in a way that lifts us from scarcity to abundance.

Think of all that you are blessed with.  A loving family? Educational opportunities? The chance to travel the world? Material wealth? Good health? Sincere friendships?  Resilience?  Charisma? The possibilities are many.  The best gifts are given without expectation of anything in return, but blessings? Those put us in God’s debt and we do owe something back to the world for our blessings.

President Kennedy, echoing words from Luke 12:48, reminded a prosperous America in 1961: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

 *   *   *   *   *

Three people in the past week or so have individually mentioned the same hymn to me. Coincidence?  Holy Spirit?  It comes from The Hymnal 1940, and though I know the tune well (the wonderfully sturdy Welsh tune, supposedly found in a bottle on its rugged coastline…Ton-y-botel), the words were less familiar to me.  I suppose the editorial committee for The Hymnal 1982 couldn’t imagine us singing these words into the 21st century and so it didn’t make the cut:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

From a poem written to protest the Mexican War and the increased territory for slavery which that war portended, the hymn’s text continues:

Then the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied (v. 2), and …toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth (v. 3) and in the final verse…Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong.  

You will find the text in its entirety here. Do you agree that these words have relevance for us in 2017, occasional masculine language notwithstanding? New CalvariesGod’s new Messiah…new occasions teach new duties…new forms of human cruelty and deception, new reasons to strengthen our resolve for truth and justice.

This is bold language, words to shake us from complacency.  Perhaps too directive though, too black and white? But aren’t some things simply wrong? Is every problem shaded in gray? If a simple question were to be asked of any action – does it create more goodwill and love in the world? – would that pull us out of some of life’s gray areas?

Each of us has abundant blessings of one kind or another. Our obligation in turn is to see each decision – even seemingly insignificant ones – as moments to decide ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

With a grateful heart,

Sanctus…Some Free Associations

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of coaching an excellent, 100+ voice high school choir from Pennsylvania as they prepared to sing in a competition. One of the pieces they sang for me was a setting of the liturgical text Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) by a young Norwegian-American composer, Ola Gjeilo.

I asked if the students knew what they were singing, and a few did know that Sanctus translated as “holy.”  No one, however, connected the elaborate setting they were singing in performance to anything that might be sung in church every week, though more than a few were undoubtedly also singing in their church choirs. I found myself explaining that the richness of the chords they were singing in the Gjeilo setting were a wonderful representation of this central part of our liturgy, when the people join their minds and hearts and voices together with the “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven.”  Maybe I crossed some church vs state line that I shouldn’t have, but a deeper understanding seemed worth that risk.

As I further reflected on this notion of the Sanctus as a point of convergence, I saw that moment in the liturgy as one where heaven and earth come together, giving us a glimpse of true communion. Liturgy emerged from my imagination in an hourglass shape – something akin to a George Herbert poem.

Coming from every direction, the people gather in church
Liturgy of the word and sermon
Creed and Prayers
Eucharistic Prayer
The people partake in communion
Renewed and fed, the people disperse into the world

If you know the works of George Herbert, then you may already have made the same free association that I did with The Altar. The “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets, including George Herbert, are labeled, sought to describe reality beyond what science had to teach them.  They were particularly interested in illuminating God’s relationship to humans. In The Altar, the appearance of the poem as a physical ALTAR, upon reading describes the human HEART as altar. One made of stone that is “cut” by the power of God, leading to the death of selfish will as a SACRIFICE upon this ALTAR.

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.

Since I’ve already made a free association between the Sanctus and George Herbert, I’ll continue with a few more. From the poem’s second line:

…cemented with teares

My engineer/poet/philosopher father wrote his dissertation on concrete, so I happen to know that concrete must be kept wet in order to properly cure.  In that same way, tears strengthen the emotions we feel. Whether these are moments of sadness or happiness, love and compassion are strengthened when tears are present.

When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound

Early American composer William Billings wrote a tune for these words that paints “falling tears” as clearly as Herbert draws his Altar above.  That tune is found in The Hymnal 1982 at #715, and it is beautifully used by 20th century American composer William Schuman in his New England Triptych..

I’ve come a long way from Sanctus, but our journeys are rarely in straight lines!