“Who is this coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved? I roused you under the apple tree; there your mother conceived you; there she travailed and brought you forth. 6Set me as a seal over your heart, as a seal upon your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy as unrelenting as Sheol. Its sparks are fiery flames, the fiercest blaze of all. 7Mighty waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If a man were to give all the wealth of his house for love, his offer would be utterly scorned.”
- Song of Songs
O you lovers that are so gentle, step occasionally
into the breath of the sufferers not meant for you.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
O how far I have to go to rest in you, in whom I’ve already arrived.
I only wish it were over, I only wish it were begun.
- Thomas Merton
This week, I recorded a version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, (also known as Veni Veni Emmanuel from the O Antiphons), and I did a little digging into the history of the piece.
I knew only a little about it, until I investigated. Quite probably to the dismay of nearly all high church organists across the world… I don’t have a degree in music, or history, and didn’t grow up in the richness of liturgy (I grew up in the richness of gospel roots music… so I’m not complaining.)
While I may not have the academic prowess for church music, whenever I spend time with the layers of it, I am often disturbed by depthless beauty, in that untouchable place in my heart.
Regardless of our knowledge of the history of this hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel has visited most of us in the form of the Great Longing, at least once. So it peaked my interest to learn that the most common melody, was originally a 15th century funeral chant called Bone Jesu Dulcis Cunctis. No wonder this melody has always carried a mysterious, alluring, spirit within it! (As my spiritual director told me, when we were preparing for me to give birth to my first baby in her home: "the only greater honour for me, would be for someone to choose to die here".)
The original burial procession lyric calls on the Angels, Michael and Gabriel, on John, Peter, Paul… on Gregory, Bernard, Francis, and incants the names of Mary Magdalene, Agnes, Martha, Katherine, Clara his Peaceful, Elizabeth and Christina. And the chant ends with “libera me”. Liberate me. Rescue me.
How many death marches, took place to this melody? How many mourners, poured out these blessings of liberation, to wish well, a dearly departed, friend? How many chanted this dirge, as they ached to embrace their beloved one last time?
What is Advent? An onset. An arrival. Not a departure.
So why does this dissonance feel so fitting?
I think it has something to do with what Martin Prechtel calls “grief and praise”, or what Anne Bronte called “mirth and mourning”.
I once read an article on the power of a good pop ballad. One of the most imperative elements is the dissonance of musical notes that otherwise ought not to be played together. Played at the right time, and held or sustained, they strike the heart chord, and stir in us the Unnameable Ache.
Maybe this most famous of Advent hymns got it completely right. The melody needed centuries of dancing as a dirge clown... of being tasted, bittersweet, by the tongues of bereaved lovers... of sculpting the shape of a life, by cradling it in death... before it could be midwifed into our anthem for the anticipation of the Great Birth. The tune needed vast, repetitious, exposure, to love’s strength, before being initiated into the swelling belly… the song of life, increasing.
We live in tired, discarnate times. We have even forgotten the laments the old wives used to sing, as we enlightened ones, half-heartedly said good-bye to our own inspirited bodies. They haunt us still.
But hark now hear! I see these days as an Advent of the Advent. We are yet being formed from this earth, "where infinity collides to give birth". Our memory of how we are made, is refocusing, after a long, blind, fluorescent, groping, through the too-bright halls of certitude.
May the story of this carol attend to our bodies, as we enter into the Advent season.
May it remind us that Love is the fiercest blaze of all.
No matter how aseptic we've tried to make the world, the birth waters are flowing, and will unmoor us... just as love always has.
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.