Of the Father’s love begotten
The year, let’s say, is 1421: it is Advent in a cold and frosty land, and we are in the candlelit church of the monastery, the nunnery, or the abbey – or perhaps the local parish church – where sisters and brothers gather to worship. The choristers stand and begin to chant, in Latin, Corde natus ex parentis, ante mundi exordium, ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten, ere the world from chaos rose…’
Even in 1421, these words were over a thousand years old. Our churches and homes are hopefully warmer places nowadays, but as we sing these words today it’s thrilling to think that we’re taking part in a tradition stretching back to the Iberian peninsula, where the poet Aurelius Prudentius (348-c.410) ordered words that point to the mystery of God.
The tune, Divinum Mysterium, also goes back a fair way: variants of this plainchant, sung without accompaniment, were known across Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
As Prudentius alludes to the Holy Trinity (‘universe of three in one’) the power of three is present in the music too. We sing it in triple time, which has the feel of a waltz: the rhythm mostly alternates between a long beat and a short beat, propelling us onwards. Nine times out of 10, the stronger long beat is one of the three notes of the tonic chord: in other words, our melody is based on three notes rooted in the one tonic – the note around which our entire musical system revolves.
Back in the abundant darkness of the church, every voice sings of this Mystery – evermore and evermore.
We ready ourselves to sing our favourite Advent carols –
we, who are members of an international choir
stretching through the ages.
Loving, living God, we thank you for all
who have been inspired to reflect, through words and music,
on the mystery of your coming to us.
As we wait for Emmanuel, may the words
and the music inspire us once more. Amen.