December 20, 2020 “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”
“Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”
Let’s talk about music for Advent. Truth is, there isn’t a lot to choose from. When you consider the volumes of Christmas carols and songs and cantatas and even oratorios, the poor little season of Advent somehow just gets left behind. But here’s the thing: despite all the Christmas movies and Dolly Parton specials and Blue Christmas’s with Elvis, there is one song that has been with us for over 1200 years that is all about this period – this season – that we call Advent, and it has been with us that long for a reason. It was originally written in Latin (no surprise there) as a series of what are called Antiphons. Seven days before Christmas, the monasteries would sing the “O Antiphons” in anticipation of Christmas Eve at which time the final Antiphon would be sang which honored the virgin Mary. This song has evolved over the years to the point where it was known around the world by the Latin title of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” which you have probably figured out by now translates into “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
Now, the reason I bring this up is because I had a bit of a revelation when it comes to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” this year. I’m always curious as to why certain melodies seem to capture our imaginations and others don’t. So, I found myself on YouTube listening to countless versions of this haunting and beautiful Advent hymn – everything from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Mrs. Smith’s Sunday School singers – when I chanced across an arrangement produced by a site called The Piano Guys and it almost brought me to tears. There was no singing, no lavish production; only a cello and a grand piano set on the porch of what looked to be the entrance to a castle or medieval cathedral of some sort. But it was stunning; it was stunning and because I couldn’t help myself, I scrolled down and began to read the comments that people had sent in. There was 5 years worth of commentary and most said just what I would have said: words like “Thank you, this was beautiful, it was touching” and that sort of thing. Others got more personal. An Aaron Deneau wrote, “This is the kind of thing we’ll be hearing in heaven.” Another wrote, “Thank you, Lord. You saved my life after 20 years on heroin. I am a Greek Christian,” followed by Robin Rubin saying, “When I listen to this song, I think of Jesus and how beautiful life can be with him in it.”
What got my attention, however, was a comment from a dude who called himself Some Edgy Teenager, and he wrote, “As someone who usually listens to heavy metal, I’m not ashamed to say that this song is absolutely beautiful. I honestly don’t have the words to describe it. These guys deserve a medal for such an amazing composition as this.” I’m not ashamed to say it – this song is absolutely beautiful. There were others that were equally…well, a little edgy. One person wrote, “I’m a weird atheist who adores religious Christmas season music. I even sing along. This is an especially poignant version. Thank you;” followed by this from Chad Wick, “I’ve heard of instances where an atheist has been so moved by the beauty of music that they decided there must indeed be a God. This is that kind of music.”
This is that kind of music, indeed. It is music that calls to us. It is music that touches us on a whole different level. It is music that invites us to invite, you might say. Veni, veni, Emmanuel. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Now, there is little chance that young Mary was in a real “inviting” mood when from out of nowhere, she was greeted by the angel Gabriel saying, (Lk 1:28) “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” I can’t say if this was a common greeting in those days or not, but I do find it interesting and a bit troublesome what Luke says next: (vs 29) 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. She was perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. What sort of greeting indeed. I mean, (and to paraphrase David Lose here,) Was he kidding? Was he making fun of her? Was this angel, this Gabriel, setting her up? We don’t know all the reasons she may have been perplexed, but when you stop and think about it you realize the possibilities are endless. She was poor without status, she was young and inexperienced, and was about to marry a man much older than herself. Nothing good had ever came her way and so she had every reason to doubt; she had every reason to think that this weird greeting was just that – weird. The beauty and the power of this little portion of our Christmas story is that the one possibility that doesn’t even occur to Mary until Gabriel goes on is that he was, in fact, serious: she is favored by God and God is with her.
And here’s the thing: I don’t think that Mary is the only one who struggles to believe she is favored by God and that God is with her. After the year we’ve just had, the idea of greeting folks with the words “You are favored by God” might not go so well. After the year we’ve just had, I imagine that many would scoff or roll their eyes – they would be “perplexed” by a greeting so simple as “God is with you.” But you know, here we are just one week shy of the most different and in some ways dismal Christmas any of us can remember. Perhaps this is the time to remind folks – to remind each other – that at the heart of the carols and celebrations and prayers and readings of the Christmas story is precisely the promise that God comes to us in love to tell us that we are loved. That is the story of Christmas after all: to hear this totally ridiculous proclamation that we are favored by God and he is with us – no matter what. God comes to us in love to tell us we are loved. God comes to us whether or not we sing the carols or hold the pageants. God comes to us in love to tell us we are loved. God comes to us in the flesh and like a melody that touches our hearts way down deep, he tells us and we believe, “You are favored by God. God is with you.”
I’ll close with two more of the comments from the recording of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The first from Denis Odnoralov who says, “2020 is a hard year but this makes everything feel better.” And lastly, Marta Goncalves speaks for us all when she says, “Every time I’ve heard this it makes me want the best for all the people in the world. Merry Christmas. Thank you guys.” To want the best for all the people in the world. O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Amen & Shalom
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