The music of the season

As the season progresses, monks and nuns and parish choirs will be chanting the O Antiphons. The Divine Office, just before the evening recitation of the Magnificat, and the Gospel acclamation announce, with a touch of wonder, seven titles of the Messiah. O Wisdom, O Leader of the House of Israel, O Root of Jesse’s Stem, O Key of David, O Radiant Dawn, O King of All Nations, O Emmanuel: these invocations sing out from December 17-23.  The titles all appear in the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

They remind us that the promised Messiah has weighty connections — with Israel’s patriarchs, prophets, kings, wisdom tradition, and deepest longings. The climax of it all unfolds as the Christmas Gloria breaks out exultantly: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.”

Why all this musical fanfare? The people of Israel intoned hopeful psalms of thanks and praise as they went up to Jerusalem, and they also sang their laments. 

On Dec. 10, as I drove toward Greenville, I listened to more than an hour of Hannukah-inspired choral and instrumental music on 89.3 and 91.3. There is something about worship, and something specifically about the modes of Judaeo-Christian worship, that prompts not only vocal prayer but music.

In even the most austere and solemn season, Lent, we sing “Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days,” “Attende, Domine” “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” and “Populi Meus.” Advent is more preparatory. It’s a glad, anticipatory season, so, not surprisingly, there is richness of hymnody — nothing like that for the Christmas and Easter seasons, of course, but a variety that mixes the somewhat more solemn (“Patience, People” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” for example) with the quicker and more vigorous (“People Look East,” “O Come, Divine Messiah.”) 

There’s an ancient saying about worship, “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” Literally, it means “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” What that suggests is that the way we pray is the way we believe. Much the same can be said of the chants and hymns of our liturgical seasons. “Creator Alme Siderum” is an Advent hymn which somehow embodies what it might mean to say that the way we sing is also the way we believe. “Creator of the stars of night,” it begins in its English translation. 

The gentle, meditative hymn asks for a Redeemer as it acknowledges that grace alone can “save and heal a ruined race,” our human race. One can imagine a lonely stargazer sitting on a hillside singing, humming, or lightly whistling this slow and rather doleful hymn. Needing a Messiah and not knowing when one would arrive can prompt a hymn like this one, imploring divine intervention. 

Another such hymn, one with slightly more energy, is “Rorate, Caeli.” The first line in its English translation is “You heavens, open from above, that clouds may rain the Just One.” These hymns reflect the human knowing that we cannot stand on our own and that the whole world needs a Savior. 

A temporarily buried faith came back to me in song one December. I still shiver to remember the snowy, cindery Sunday when I went to an Advent Mass in the Puerto Rican neighborhood in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and first heard “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” sung in Spanish. It was one of those moments that I can identify as part of a conversion, a critical stunned-to-the-core experience that fed a vocation I had been fleeing in “flower child” fashion.

As a child and youth I’d heard the hymn in English and Latin. I knew that for four chilly weeks it showed up over and over. What I didn’t realize was that I had internalized it more than I had ever imagined. As the verses were sung, the universality of the Church and the universality of longing for a hero, a God, a better life, a triumph of goodness, struck me profoundly as I listened to the so familiar hymn in what was to me a less familiar language. 

It led me to a couple trekking to the other Bethlehem, the original one which inspired the name of the city in which I was living. It set before me a stable, a manger, a Child, and a promise. The parishioners there did not disappoint. They praised with verve, they stopped in to make visits to the church during odd hours of the week, they ran a used clothing “tienda,” and fed some needy neighbors. They danced, they sang, and Padre Juan made the Gospel real, applicable, here and now, as well as back then when there was no room in the inn. 

They adored the Eucharist, so totally appropriate in a city whose Hebrew name means “House of Bread.” 

It struck me that this Emmanuel who had come and who still is God-with-us was worth staking the rest of my life on. Somehow the music started it.

A little over 30 years later, I was living at Blessed Sacrament in Charleston and helping with the school children’s music ministry. When we were practicing for one of the school Masses, I was surprised at how quickly the students picked up the melody and the words of one of the hymns. A young boy explained to me, “Some songs just get stuck in your head.” I had realized that “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” had gotten ineradicably stuck in my head — and even deeper, in my heart and soul. It appears that “Shine, Jesus, Shine” had stuck fast in him.

Our Advent music has its yearning tones and its triumphant ones, its meditative antiphons and its hand-clapping, tambourine-clanging anticipations (“The King of Glory Comes”).  

As we close in on Christmas, the music of these last days of Advent reflects a mix of longing and profound faith in the unseen. So do our readings from Sacred Scripture. Our liturgies call us to the remembrance and hope that this season is all about. 

On the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, the first reading at Mass will be one of two options: from the prophet Zephaniah or from the Song of Songs. Zephaniah reminds us, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.” 

The Song of Songs, on the inaugural day of winter in our hemisphere, declares, “For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” 

All of this is worth hanging on to and recalling in faith. May all of us, in spite of rough roads, smelly sheep, and dearth of welcome, find reason to break into song as love unfolds and all that is cold turns warm.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM
About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 125 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.