The Catholic year is divided up into liturgical seasons, and, yesterday, Advent began. Advent is, for Catholics, a small version of Lent. It precedes Christmas, as Lent does Easter, and is a season of waiting and preparing through fasting and reflection. We are waiting for Christmas, but also the second coming of Christ, His two inbreakings into the world are paired in this season.
It’s also a very nice excuse for not putting up Christmas decorations or for complaining about overplayed carols without being grinchy. And we do get to make up for the fasting with twelve days of Christmas later, plus marking the Octave of Christmas (the eight days starting from Christmas) when the liturgical readings remain the same every day, because the feast is too grand to be contained to a single day’s solemnity.
But the Advent season has its own music, including one of my favorite hymns: O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
I like that it is a minor keyed hymn that includes the word “Rejoice.” For me, it parallels the psalms of lamentation which don’t sugarcoat suffering in order to magnify God. There need to be forms of prayer for all of life, and these hymns and prayers give us a way to seek God honestly, acknowledging both that He is cause to rejoice and that we still don’t feel swept away by joy at present.
In His life, Christ went through every part of a human life, including suffering and death, so we do not ever need to fear that we’ve wandered into a dark corner that is unknown to Him. We can call out to Him in any key, and still be able to acknowledge the joy He brings to us.
I also really like the way the final line of the chorus is paced. Emmanuel is spread over eight counts, twice as many as it has syllables. and, when we get to the end of the elongated phrase, the first note of the next phrase turns up a little early, just inside the measure, as the last note of that four-count. More than once, as I’m adjusting to how long a choir chooses to hold the dotted half-note, I’ve been surprised by the start of the “Shall” and had to breathlessly leap into the next phrase.
The last line of the song overtakes us while we wait and prepare, just as the beginning of Christmas overtakes Advent, and God overtakes our own efforts to reach him. Even during eight counts of preparation, the promise of that last line still keeps startling me, just as the good news we are preparing to celebrate does.