O Come All Ye Faithful: An Advent Meditation

Today we are celebrating the last week of Advent with O Come All Ye Faithful. Yet again, I have a decided favorite version of this carol, by the true king of Christmas music, Nat “King” Cole. His voice is wonderfully smooth and soothing, yet powerful and stirring. I’d hope you all have heard that version, but if you haven’t, please listen and soak it in.

There are all these fantastical origin theses about O Come All Ye Faithful, first known as Adeste Fideles. It appeared on the European carol-singing stage seemingly out of nowhere in the late 18th century, gaining popularity rapidly. People thought it might be kind of like O Come O Come Emmanuel—a song from the monks of the distant past, recently brought up from the depths of time through a discovered manuscript. But it was not. 

It was written, first in Latin, by an English Roman Catholic persecuted for his religion in the 18th century, John Francis Wade. Wade had fled to France, where he participated in the time’s newfound interest in using the plainchant of the past in church services again. He wrote the song, and it rocketed in popularity in France among the wealthy, who often used it in their private chapels. In England, it also become very popular, when it was performed in the Portuguese embassy’s chapel for a concert of “ancient religious music.” That chapel is still there today, no longer connected to the embassy, but functioning as a Catholic chapel in London. You can go there if you like and imagine the song being played and reaching fame. The tune appears to also have appeared in a comic opera of the time, which seems rather incongruous! But maybe that’s why we still feel the joyous hilarity surging up from the chorus, which I always kind of want to sing faster and faster: O come let us adore him!

It was translated into English many times, but one of the earliest was at Oxford in the 19th century, for the use of the Margaret Chapel at Christ Church. I laughed when I read this, because the beginning line used to be: “Ye faithful, approach ye.” Sing that out loud to yourself. “Approach ye” is just not very catchy. The author of this translation was eventually forced out of Oxford for becoming a follower of Cardinal John Henry Newman and converting to Roman Catholicism. Thus,  this carol is particularly and fascinatingly linked to English Roman Catholics. And the song endured, even became more and more popular, despite the ill treatment of its writers and translators, and eventually reached the form we know and love today.

Let’s listen together, not to “Ye faithful approach ye,” thank goodness, but to our stirring, beloved version:

 O come, all ye faithful,
joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold him,
born the King of angels.

Refrain:
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord!

2 God from true God, and
Light from Light eternal,
born of a virgin, to earth he comes!
Only-begotten Son of God the Father: [Refrain]

Sing, choirs of angels,
sing in exultation,
sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest: [Refrain]

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, 
born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be all glory giv’n!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing: [Refrain]

Another wonderful theological poem set to song, thick in meaning and ready for meditation. But let’s focus on the chorus, which in the wonderful comic opera tune, speeds up our hearts with its urging. What does it mean to adore Jesus, especially Jesus the baby whom we greet, born this happy morning? 

I am reminded of a beautiful Christmas sermon by the medieval theologian and monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He pictures us as Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter three, fearfully hiding in the garden from God. We know God is coming, we hear him moving towards us and we hide in terror, because we know we have done wrong. We’re hiding from that magnificent king, the one in utter glory, whom we know we have wronged with our lack of love and our fierce desires for rule. 

But to our shock, he isn’t coming with strong weapons or with a booming voice of wrath. Bernard writes, 

And in case you are even now saying, “I heard your voice, and I hid myself”, look, he is a baby, and he has no voice. The sound of his crying inspires compassion more than trembling…

He became a little child. The virgin mother wraps his tender limbs in swaddling clothes—and do you still tremble with fear? Or will you realize from this that he has not come to destroy but to save you, not to bind but to set you free? 

Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Advent and Christmas Seasons

Bernard sees the infant Jesus as the ultimate coming in peace—he has given up his voice, he has bound himself to unbind you. His humility in his rejection of ultimate power speaks eloquently about his character of love, not fear. I relate to this—I cringe in anticipation of punishment, only to receive—tender love and the final banishing of fear.

No sacrificial love or radical humility comes close to the omnipotent, omniscient Creator God of the universe becoming a newborn human, unable to command his own bowel movements or his fragile baby neck. In another sermon Bernard of Clairvaux remarked, “only the virtue of humility is a restorative for wounded love.” He was referring to the Incarnation as a profoundly humble response to human creatures who had forgotten how to love. God’s humility in coming to us as a baby transforms and heals our wounded love. 

Bernard is right. Our love is wounded. We are bad at adoration, mostly because we have been hurt or embarrassed in the past by how we have shown our love. Love makes you vulnerable. C.S. Lewis famously writes in The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason ‘I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.’  Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

What more fittingly, what more clearly could help you to throw your defensive armor and scaly dragon skin away than the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes in Mary’s arms? The God who made us and knows us best played his cards perfectly to help us learn how to love again. Very few people have the ability that a speechless, inert baby does to initiate a surprisingly strong but vulnerable love. Anyone who has had a beloved baby family member, either your own child or a friend’s or family member’s, and let themselves become open to that infant, recognizes this fact. Not that we were perfect, or even did a good job, but love comes easily, and with it, a discarding of protective armor, even practical protective armor. We suddenly become willing to put up with changing another human’s dirty diaper, with waking at odd hours of the night, because our love has makes it possible even when we are utterly sleep-deprived, filled with hormonal feelings, or just not that into children in general. 

This week our Advent activity is to practice, to exercise our wounded love and adoration aided by the baby Jesus. It can be very difficult to love the people around us. But sometimes as you love easier things, it becomes easier to love hard things. Love is not just a feeling; it is also a habit. 

What do I mean when I say that love is a habit? A habit means that faking it til you make it is ok, even part of the process. The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre uses the example of chess to explain learning a habit of virtue. At first, when you’re bad at the game, your teacher may use candy or words of affirmation to motivate you to learn how to play well, and learn the right moves to make, and the rules of how it all works. You don’t love chess for its own sake, you love it for the rewards of it. Eventually, you learn to just love the game of chess, to relish the beauty and complexity of it in its own right. Habits like virtues—temperance, prudence, fortitude, all those old-fashioned words—work the same way. Love is truly a gift from God. It’s impossible for us to love well on our own. But practicing, like chess, and making love a habit in your life, looking at someone and mentally saying “I love you” if not aloud—this helps us to move towards the gift of love even more fully. Think of it this way: someone may have received a natural gift of creativity, intelligence, or athleticism. But practicing that gift strengthens it, gives it flexibility and power. So it is with love.

What easily fills your heart up with love? What moves your soul? This could be anything—pictures of your children when they were infants, your pet on your lap, a hike, a particular song or episode of a TV show or movie, a book that moves you to tears, a really good meal. Once I was watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with my kids and just the theme song had me weeping with love for humanity for that one minute. I was pregnant, so on hair-trigger levels of emotion, and likely enraged about something the next second, but the point is don’t feel ashamed about whatever causes that response of love. Your advent practice this week is to seek that love-response. No one is going to judge you if it comes from Mr. Rogers or Lord of the Rings instead of Handel’s Messiah or Shakespeare. It doesn’t even matter if it’s “Christian” or not, just seek out the things that move your soul to love this week, deliberately. If you can, do so several times. Feel that overwhelming love response. Savor it. Praise God for the gift of that wonderful thing being in the world. 

Then, follow the call of O Come All Ye Faithful and direct that welling-up love towards the baby in the manger, or to those around you who are Christ’s body here. Even if it’s fragile or only in the words you practice saying, exercise your adoration.

As with any of these activities, only do this if it feels helpful. If you’re in a place of grief or weariness where you are utterly exhausted and adoration feels far away, take a blessed nap instead. I like to consider napping an act of adoration, because it is an imitation of the baby Jesus asleep in the manger. 

If you’d like to make this adoration exercise a little more concrete, or if the feelings are hard but you can do something intentional with your body (there have been times in my life where I’ve been grateful for a bodily action because the mental was too hard for me), carry around a baby Jesus from a nativity set with you this week, in your pocket or purse. Remember when you were a small child, and you saw something really cute, like a baby chick or kitten, and you could hardly contain yourself from squeezing it to death? Well, since that baby Jesus is just from the nativity, you can squeeze him in your fist as tight as you’d like and fulfill those childhood desires. Merry Christmas, friends. O come let us adore him! Venite adoremus!

A small end-of-year (though not end of season!) note: If you’d ever like to support Old Books With Grace and help keep the podcast going by aiding with upkeep costs and books, you can do so here:

https://www.buymeacoffee.com/gracehamman

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