The Ancient Advent Spirit

During a car ride back from a friend’s house I flipped on the radio to hear a modern choral rearrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Andrew Smith*. The choir sang with the original Latin text, “Veni, Veni Emmanuel,” and it sounded exactly like the classic I expected, until they reached the second refrain. The arranger altered the melody right at it’s grandest climax, where we sing triumphantly “Rejoice, Rejoice!” Rather than our traditional major chord, he selected a more dissonant, diminished chord. It gave the song an entirely new atmosphere; it became apocalyptic.

He captured an angle to the song I never considered. When we sing “Rejoice” we remember Christ’s first Advent (latin for arrival) on Earth. We remember Israel’s long wait for the Messiah. But there’s another sense to the song. We do not merely remember, we too wait. We await Christ’s second advent, which is, of course, the apocalypse, when he comes to judge the living and the dead and make all things new.

Until he returns, we long for his return. Our hearts strike a diminished chord until that day, because life cannot be fully life until he returns. We strike a diminished chord in our hearts, because we feel the pang of waiting and yearning.

A friend of mine recently told me that in the Anglican liturgical calendar Advent does not mark the beginning of the new year, rather the end of the year. The same was true of ancient Latin liturgical calendars used when “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” was written over 1000 years ago.

Why did ancient Christians celebrate Advent as the end of the year? Because Advent is about end of this age, when Christ returns. It seems strange in our Christmas-world of nativity scenes and little towns of Bethlehem, to realize that one of our favorite Christmas carols is a solemn song written to tune our hearts not only to the past, but to a future reality.

So part of me deeply appreciated Andrew Smith’s arrangement. It stays true to the ancient Advent spirit. Yet, it is insufficient on its own, because Christ’s first advent ended on the cross, and on that cross he sealed our future destiny. We do have something to rejoice over in glorious major chords.

I’m challenged this Advent to not to merely remember Israel’s long wait, but to enter into it. That’s why we sing songs like “The Church Has Waited Long” during advent. The church has waited long, and will wait until his second Advent. Veni, Veni Emmanuel.

*You can listen here. The song begins 19 minutes in.

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