Veni, veni Emmanuel;
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!
Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that morns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel
(a woman worships in silence alone, in a small Florentine chapel in Florence, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)
Growing up in an Anglican, more specifically, an American Episcopal Church, in a large Gothic Cathedral to be more exact, I was immersed at an early age with beautiful choral music and hymns. Many of which boast of ancient roots and beginnings. To hear and to feel the massive and beautiful organ deeply reverberating throughout the massive stone cavernous church as it engulfs one’s entire being, accompanying the voices of the classically trained choir, echoing and rising out from behind the chancel, was all short of magical.
I am very old fashioned when it comes to hymns and the music associated with that of a Cathedral. There is a solemnity and a reverence. Just merely reading the lyrics of these hymns, one is struck by the rich poetic history of the stories being told via the use of ancient song.
There are a handful of hymns, to this day, which tug upon my heart bringing tears to my eyes each opportunity I have, as either a member of a Sunday congregation or merely gently singing to myself as I go about my day–that move my heart to a place of deep reflection–an almost mystical reverence.
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, the Latin version of O come O come, Emmanuel, is one such hymn. It is a hymn for the season of Advent, as that is the only time it is sung. It’s roots are indeed ancient as some scholars date it (the Latin version) to that of an 8th century Gregorian Chant. Others date it to either the 12th or 15th century France as a processional type of hymn. Even others date it to as earless the 18th century as an antiphon or type of sung liturgical response.
Sadly, I must confess that I don’t know a thing about music, as I’ve never been trained or had an opportunity of singing in a choir. I really can’t sing, but have always wished I could. So as I explain the power of this particular hymn, those of you who do understand music, please forgive me for I speak from my heart about this music and not of classical study.
O come O come Emmanuel is sung slowly, beginning quite low, being “sung” a cappella. It can be accompanied by an organ or other single instrument. Mannheim Steamroller, the wonderfully synthesizing modern music group, who has produced marvelous holiday music based from many medieval songs, has a beautiful rendition. It is very reminiscent of the chants heard from various early Christian monasteries–which is why I believe it does have it’s roots seeded in that of Gregorian Chants. The cadence is steady and specific–there is power in the simplistic rhythm of the 7 groups of stanzas which make up the full body of the text.
I understand the whole joyful noise business, but I am of the serious school when it comes to worship. The ancient hymns, that are more typical of a liturgical service, speak of solemn serious worship–meditative and reflective, which seem to rise up from one’s very core. There is not that over the top emotionalism so often associated with the prayer and praise musical services of today. In this chant, as well as other similar types of hymns, there is rather an acute awareness.
Much of the early Church’s music, which has it’s roots in Medieval Europe, speaks of wondrous mysteries as the world, to those who were apart of those “dark ages,” was indeed a mysterious time and place. They did know the things which we know today. Much of our scientific world has solved many of their mysteries and problems. Their musical worship was based deeply in a belief and faith that was undefinable, full of questions, wonderment and awe. God and the understanding of Him, His Son and that of the Holy Spirit was unfathomable–something not easily or readily defined or put in a nice little box of understanding. Their music reflected such. Mystery and awe.
This particular hymn / chant is serious, steady, determined, meaningful and lasting. It strikes at something very deep. It doesn’t get one worked up in a sweat induced, clap your hands and shout to the heavens sort of deal, but rather it is almost spoken, as in a statement that is meant to make those who hear it contemplate its very importance. It is almost mournful and heavy.
Why mournful and heavy you ask as we enter the season of Advent which, for the Church, marks a time of waiting and expectant watching you wonder. Are we not anticipating a birth? Is not the anticipation of a birth an event of great joy?
A time of joy, yes, and yet at the same moment, with this particular birth, comes a deep heaviness as it is a birth marked with tremendous hardship, only to be followed by the fleeing for safety and then a time of more waiting. The very conception, waiting and birth stay constantly in the shadow of Death. With this birth comes grave consequence for both me and you. . .and yet, as with all births, there is tremendous Hope of what will be.
And as with the anticipation of any birth comes a sense of urgency. The urgency here is of the coming of the one referred to as Emmanuel, as it is He who is come to ransom the captive Israel, which in turn refers to all of us today. He is to come and is to set the captives free. To free you and I from the prison of our sin and of our death. As we mourn throughout our “exile” or separation from our Father.
The Immanuel, Hebrew עִמָּנוּאֵל, which has been Romanized to Emmanuel–meaning God with Us, is invoked to come, to come to us all, but yet is acknowledged as already being here with us–the Omnipotent one. We sing to the God who is with us and yet who is to come, and who is to come quickly. We are then told to Rejoice, Rejoice because He will come, as He has come and as He will come again.
On this first Monday in this new season of Advent may we all be mindful of our continual need of this Holy Coming–of the one who will set and make things right, who will free both you and I from the constant presence of the shadow of Death—-who will bridge the gap of separation, as this Emmanuel is the only one who can and will and has done all of this! So may we Rejoice and Rejoice continually as He shall come to us indeed—Amen. Amen.