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Lyrics and Life

By Caitlin Ward


By Caitlin Ward

O come, O come, Emmanuel
(Latin text is first documented in Germany in 1710; the tune most familiar in the English-speaking world has its origins in 15th-century France.)

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel
O come, Thou Day-Spring
Come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel

(there are two more verses)

So I bought an Advent wreath.

It doesn’t really resemble the Advent wreath I grew up with. It’s tiny, for one — fewer than six inches across, I’d guess. It matches my tiny Peruvian Nativity set in size, if not style. My Advent wreath relies on having tiny pink and purple candles to go inside it, which I know is going to be a headache next year.

This is not how I was raised. My inventive and deeply sensible mother crafted a beautiful, ornate Advent wreath out of bits and pieces, and bought purple and pink ribbons for our family wreath so she could buy white or wax candles instead of having to hunt down liturgically correct colours every year.

It was long overdue. I’ve been living on my own for years, now. When I lived with my sister I relied on her Advent wreath which, like my parents’, was an ingenious and sensible thing that could easily be used every year with a minimum of fuss. When I moved out on my own, too busy and distracted to make a wreath for the Advent season, I gave up having one entirely. It wasn’t a choice, per se. It was just that it didn’t occur to me to buy one, and then I got used to not having one, and that was seven years ago. For similar reasons, I’ve never had a Christmas tree in my apartment, and the Nativity set is a relatively new addition to my home, as well. It was only when I bought a Nativity set for a friend who is in the process of converting that I realized I really ought to have one too.

For a Catholic, I am often terrible at ritual and observance. There are certain saints I like and admire, but I’ve never developed a proper devotion to one. Half the time I forget to genuflect because I’m late for mass and just trying to get into a pew before someone sees me. I am very lucky to work at a Catholic college because I’m not sure I’d fulfil my obligation for reconciliation if I didn’t happen to work with three priests.

I go for sudden bursts of formal prayer if I’m doing a novena for a particular reason, and I’ve a great deal of gratitude for the rosary, which has got me through some tough times. This past summer my sister, brother-in-law, and I went on a road trip to look at different Marian shrines in Saskatchewan, so on one particular day I did the Stations of the Cross two times in a row.

If I’m honest, though, most of my prayer life revolves around informally chatting with God while I’m driving, apologizing to him somewhat randomly if I think I’m doing a crappy thing, or looking up at the sky at night, demanding to know why something is the way it is. I also ask St. Anthony to tell God I need my keys, a lot. That last one is not original with me, but something I lifted from an early George Carlin bit. Unlike Carlin, my Catholicism has not lapsed, but like Carlin, I lose my keys a lot.

Of course, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these expressions of prayer; a less formal relationship with the Divine is an important aspect of one’s faith. If we relegate our prayer and thoughts of God only to these more formal things, it becomes easy to leave Jesus at the tabernacle, or at the crucifix hanging on our wall, rather than recognizing God in all things and all people, and our lives need to be guided by God in every moment, not just in our formal observance.

I think, though, that holistic view needs to include formal observance in a way I have tended not to include it throughout my life. I have relied on my parents, or my sister, and in some cases my friends, to keep me committed to them. Before this year I didn’t think there was much point in having an Advent wreath if I was the only one who was going to see or use it. But there is something good about setting aside time for formal prayer, instead of doing it piecemeal throughout the week. There is something helpful in devoting oneself to a particular saint to learn from that saint’s life and writings, and to ask for intercession from someone more holy than oneself.

And for me, this year, there has been something beautiful in having my tiny Advent wreath on my coffee table, lighting the candle for myself, and singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” on Sunday night, even though no one is there to hear it but me and God.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at