Saturday, December 8, 2012

Riu Riu Chiu: Reflections on the Immaculate Conception

One of my earliest obsessions was with The Monkees.  I fell in love with these Beatles knock-offs in 1980s syndication, in those days before my family had either cable or a VCR; I depended on  the static-ridden airwaves to bring the show to me via Boston's Channel 56.   On a good day, the wavy lines weren't too distracting, and the sound quality would be decent.  I hovered about the television set, adjusting the antennae for an optimal experience.

In those days before Youtube and digital recordings, I never had a choice of what episode or what portion of an episode to watch.  I had my favorites which always thrilled me to see; having one of those aired was like getting a gift.

The best such gift for me was the Christmas special, the plot of which I can no longer recall; I loved it for the closing sequence, an a capella harmony of a song called "Riu Chiu."  This tune was, hands down, my favorite Monkees recording of all time.

Furthermore, the airing of this episode was a near-sacred moment for me because I did not own a copy of this tune on any of my Monkees albums; I had not been able to find a recording of it anywhere in that pre-streaming, pre-Amazon, pre-iTunes era.

Last Advent, I was brainstorming ideas for hymns that I could listen to before Christmas, to prepare for the season without jumping in full-tilt, full-steam-ahead.  (Yes, I love "O Come Emmanuel," but there are just so many times you can hear it/sing it/pray it, no matter how many versions or languages you find it in.)  I wondered, "What songs would prepare my heart for the coming of Christ?

Suddenly, after years of not hearing the tune, "Riu Chiu" entered my mind's ear and stayed there.  Thrill to my soul!  I ran to the computer, and a quick search of Youtube provided me with that moment I'd always waited and waited and pined for as a kid.

The song was every bit as moving as I recalled; as a child it had moved me to tears, the harmony was so lovely.  I never took Spanish, so I had absolutely no idea what it meant.  All I knew was it was a "traditional Spanish carol," and I loved it.

I was teary-eyed again as I played it on Youtube.

Then I googled the lyrics.

Suddenly, my emotional response made perfect and logical sense.

"Riu Chiu" flat-out begins with the Immaculate Conception of Mary: the belief that Mary was conceived in her mother's womb to be free from Original Sin (i.e. the first sin of man).   It alludes to the enmity that existed between the devil (the black wolf), and Our Lady.

River, roaring river, guard our homes in safety,God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.
Raging mad to bite her, there the wolf did steal,But our God Almighty defended her with zeal.Pure He wished to keep Her so She could never sin,That first sin of man never touched the Virgin )

Thus, God has kept the devil away from Our Lady by preserving her from "that First Sin of Man".

The round about Our Lady's protection continues, after which the lyrics focus on the culmination of salvation history: the Incarnation of Christ.  

He who's now begotten is our mighty Monarch,Christ, our Holy Father, in human flesh embodied.He has brough atonement by being born so humble,Though He is immortal, as mortal was created.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I think this song had that much depth. 

Another translation (of a different arrangement) of this carol notably differs in associating the refrain, "Riu Riu Chiu," with the song of the nightingale, rather than with the sound of the river:
Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb (Bruce Cockburn
Here, the river bank protects the nightingale in the same way that God protects Our Lady from sin.  As a literary symbol, the nightingale has at times been associated with love, and its song has been associated with a "lament." Such imagery is entirely appropriate for the Blessed Mother, who would one day follow her Son to the foot of the cross, and there have her own heart pierced with swords.  The very fact of her Immaculate Conception prepares her for this future role:

The rabid wolf tried to bite her
But God Almighty knew how to defend her
He wished to create her impervious to sin
Nor was this maid to embody original sin

Why would such preparation for Mary's role as mother of God be necessary?   Consider how even once Baptism washes away Original Sin, our souls are left weakened by it.  This is our fallen nature, our temptation to sin and to not strive for virtue.  Could a weakened soul like yours or mine find the strength to face an angel, hear his words and say, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word"?  Could such a weakened soul consent to and face the suspicion and the ridicule of being found pregnant out of wedlock in that time and place?  Could a fallen soul patiently, courageously, and with consistent hope and faith rear that child, knowing who He is and the violent fate that awaits Him?!

It only seems fair that a perfect, loving, and merciful God would prepare Mary for the coming task of mothering Our Savior.  And He did prepare her;  His grace was instantaneously granted upon her conception, the moment in which He preserved her from Original Sin.  Thus Mary's Advent began; she had time to love and grow closer to God without the obstacles the rest of us have.  Without that propensity to sin, Mary would not kill the grace within her the way the rest of us so often do.

 I know how many times I stumble and fall in my own motherhood: how often do I lose patience, shout,  say "yes" when I should say "no," or say "No!" when I should say "yes?"  How often do I cling to my own desires ahead of my children's needs, even if unconsciously or just for a moment?  How frequently do I set them a poor example?

How many times a day do I fling myself on my knees to apologize and beg God for His mercy?  I'll tell you: not as often as I should, given how any mortal sin kills the life of grace within me.  Even those venial sins leave my soul sick and at less-than-optimal efficiency.  

I can not imagine undertaking the task presented to Mary.  No one truly can fathom it.  In my weakness, there is no way that I could co-operate with God's grace enough to walk with a Son who was fully God,  my own Creator and Savior, yes... but who was also fully human and as such, needing a mother's love.

I recommend folks check out the full translation of the original carol; it will rock your theological and literary worlds.  Especially on a day such as today, as we ponder God's plan in preparing Mary to one day be the first to know, love and serve Jesus: when He was a baby in her own womb.

And yes, before bed I will give this version one more go as well:

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