Veni Emmanuel

In the Christian church, the new year – the liturgical year – begins this coming Sunday with a four week journey known as Advent. It’s often described as a time of waiting, watching, and hoping, and a season when we might try to quiet our minds in the midst of the chaos around us, but living in a state of anticipation and also with a quiet mind seem to be at odds with each other. Somehow we have to accept that Advent is a season of duality. A time of joy and penance, beginnings and end times, the comfort of God’s word and the discomfort of the prophets’ messages, images of light and darkness.

I love the hymns of Advent, and no hymn better captures the two sides of Advent than O come, o come Emmanuel, sometimes known by its Latin name, Veni emmanuel. Its text is built on the ancient words of the “O Antiphons” which were sung before and after the chanting of Mary’s Magnificat in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (hence the dates you see before each verse). Mourning in lonely exile (vs 1), we’re asked in the refrain to “Rejoice!”

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 brave response to God’s plan for her to have a child, one who will be both human and divine.


Each verse of Veni Emmanuel (#56 in The Hymnal 1982) begins with a salutation, in the form of a name for God, and then an invitation for each of these aspects of God to come into our lives. An invitation is meaningless, of course, unless the door has been left open, so don’t sing this beautiful hymn unless your heart is open to change!

O Sapienta (v. 2)  O come, wisdom, and show us a path towards knowledge

O Adonai (v. 3) O come, Lord of might, and with an outstretched arm, save us

O Radix Jesse (v. 4)  O come, branch of Jesse’s tree, and be a sign of God’s love

O Clavis David  (v. 5)  O come, Key of David, and open the gates of life and set us free

O Oriens (v. 6)   O come, Radiant Light, and shine on those who sit in darkness

O Rex gentium (v. 7)   O come, King of all people, and end our sad divisions

O Emmanuel  (vss 1 and 8)  O come, Emmanuel, and dwell among us

In the complexity of this life, may we discover truth somewhere in the middle of all the dichotomies of Advent. Anticipation and peacefulness. Questions and answers. Joy and penance. Comfort and discomfort. And in all of that, may it be a journey towards light and rebirth, a triumph of dreams and hopes over our knowledge of life’s dark places.

Veni Emmanuel,


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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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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 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…


Morning and Mourning

(first published December 9, 2010)

The liturgical season of Advent, which began this past Sunday, beautifully mirrors the natural world around us. Plants and animals close in on themselves for a time of hibernation that is ultimately the sustenance needed for renewed vigor. In a similar way Christians are asked to quiet their minds and prepare for Christ’s coming. Images of dark and light abound in the readings and music, just as the light of day is most precious in its contrast to night’s darkness. The duality of Advent is represented as well in the comfort we are encouraged to feel when we hear about a Savior’s birth, contrasting with the discomfort of the prophets’ words. Comfort, comfort…you brood of vipers!

Like the Chinese philosophical concept of yin and yang, the contrary messages of Advent are interdependent.  The anticipation we have for the coming of Christ in the flesh, a baby in a manger, is paired with the coming of Christ at the end of time.  What do we have here, a beginning or an ending? Both?

There is an African-American spiritual that inadvertently reflects two possible mind-sets for this time of year. Taking its inspiration from the Gospel of Matthew 24:29-31*, My Lord, what a morning is sometimes written as My Lord, what a mourning. Slavery’s oral tradition obscures the song’s original meaning, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that those who first gave voice to spirituals were closer to mourning.

Light and dark. Comforting words and admonitions. The joy of welcoming an infant Savior and the fear of being unprepared for God’s expectations of us. Morning and mourning. Each part of these pairings has something to teach us, but ultimately light, joy, comfort and morning will win, if we so choose.

Peace, Sonya

*Matthew: 24-31 (NRVS)

Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from on end of heaven to the other.

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Where I’ll be:

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (

December 13, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m. (

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.