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




Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

From the 15th chapter of I Corinthians and used by Handel in his Messiah, these are words that often echo through my brain and which have inspired a couple of different postings. Unlike music, which is ruled by timely precision – rhythms, meters, tempi – and unlike the world we live in where timing can be everything and time usually feels like a scarce and valuable commodity, these words imply a less concrete, more expansive sense of time.

Perhaps, like me, you have been sitting on Metro, waiting for the single track to become available so your train can move, when you hear the operator assuring passengers that we will be moving momentarily.  “In a moment” – a phrase of breathtaking elasticity.  The train conductor’s vague sense of time brought to my mind’s ear the words above from Messiah, sung of course by a rich baritone voice.

A humbling moment for me was in sixth grade when our creative writing teacher, an amazing woman named Frances Sandmel, asked our class to write about time.  I was stumped, completely and utterly drawing a blank.  My more clever classmates came up with wonderful ideas that Mrs. Sandmel then cobbled into a poem which we read as a class at a very 70’s kind of happening, with musicians from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, in a garden at the William Howard Taft Museum. The essential idea of her creation was that time equals change.  My young classmates wrote about time as mold growing on bread and the instant between a soldier standing and falling to the ground after being shot (our world included a war in Vietnam on television every evening after all).  Of time as a baby becoming a grandmother.

In other words, time is a twinkling of an eye and also a moment, because change happens at the speed of light as often as it does over an expanse. We talk about time standing still, and time flying.  We experience time in slow motion and yet decades of our lives seem to go by in a flash.

I believe that God exists simultaneously in the past, present and future, and that we would do well to find ways of doing the same. Would that we could live with a deeper knowledge of our connections to the past, while having the energy to satisfy our present needs and desires, and at the same time fly on the wings of our hopes for the future.  Seeing time this way just might take some of the edge off of our worries about not having enough of it and allay our concerns when time isn’t moving fast enough for those things we care most about, whether personal matters or on issues of justice and social change.  Those times when we need help to remember that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long… but only in human terms.

No surprise that Bach provides some useful wisdom about time in his Cantata No. 106, Gottes Zeit ist der allerbest Zeit – God’s time is the best of all times.


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Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical.

November 6 – 4:00, playing for John Rutter’s Requiem with the choir of All Saints Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase.

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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.

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