This will likely go down in AfL’23 history as one of my favorite days. Because today’s reflection is courtesy of the delightful poet Pádraig Ó Tuama. He brings a poet’s heart to his music, to his work in theology, and to his work in conflict mediation. Having read his book In the Shelter, I can attest to the absolute beauty and heart-rending vulnerability he infuses into his wordcraft. I highly recommend letting his creations steal your heart.
Today, we’re listening to “Maranatha,” from Pádraig’s album hymns to swear by. Peter writes of this song that it
“…represents a powerful musical example of the dialectic process I spoke of on the first day. Pádraig has written a piece of music that goes into the heart of questioning, struggle and anger, but in a way that sublimates them in the expression of a wider, deeper and richer expression of faith.”–Dr. Peter Rollins,
Atheism for Lent,
Before I dive into the actual music, let’s talk about the title. The word “maranatha” has a rich history. I won’t expound upon it in its entirety, because I’m not a Greek-Aramaic linguist and this isn’t a history book. But.
“Maranatha” is the English rendering of the Ancient Greek words μαράνα θά (marána thá) or μαράν αθά (marán athá). These, in turn, are transliterated from Aramaic מרנא תא (“Lord, come!”) or מרן אתא (“our lord has come”). “Maranatha” appears in 1. Corinthians 16:22 and Didache 10:14. (“Come, Lord Jesus” as seen in Revelation 22:20 seems to be a Koine translation of the Aramaic.) The Latin Church has used the term as part of excommunication rituals; interestingly, in 1975, Roman Catholic priest John Main put forth “maranatha” as the ideal Christian mantra. Traditionally, Christians have used the word(s) as a focal point of contemplative prayer for the early Second Coming of Christ.
Now to Pádraig Ó Tuama’s song. Pádraig’s “Maranatha” sounds, in some ways, like a lullaby, slow and tender but also lush with resonance. It’s written in major, but still there is a darkness to the depths of the chords. At the beginning, only the fact that it’s not in minor keeps the first lines of lyrics from sounding forlorn. Still, throughout the entire song, a wistfulness reverberates to the point of near melancholy.
At first, Pádraig’s gentle tenor retains its softer qualities. “You are my strength, but I am weak,” repeated several times, then followed by a rich but thinning “maranatha,” also repeated. In the “-tha” of final “maranatha” of the first chorus, the melody drops (sorry, I don’t know what to call this — my music terminology from of old escapes me) with what feels almost like finality. Almost a resignation. There’s a hint here, I feel, of what’s to come. The singer is asking, “Lord, come” — but maybe it’s a hope bound to be disappointed.
The second verse repeats the phrase “I’ve given up sometimes when I’ve been tired.” So relatable. My whole heart resonates with this, recalling moments when I’ve wanted to give up but haven’t, moments when I’ve been so tired I did give up. It’s a question — have you, the listener, felt this too? — and a sort of call — let’s take our rest when we need it. The second chorus asks “Does it move you?” — again that near-lament; but Pádraig’s voice gains some strength here, calling to mind a challenge. But a challenge to whom? To the human listener? To the Lord who might be looking down on us? “Does my exhausted surrender mean aught to you? Do you let it touch your heart? Are you going to do anything about it?”
Verse three gets real with us. “I’ve fucked it up so many times” — repeated thrice with increasing strength. The singer’s voice hardens. The final “times” edges right into the chorus word: “ALLELUJAH,” ringing and powerful (and also making me chuckle). I’ve fucked it up over and over again, PRAISE GOD. But the final “allelujah” softens once more, as though the celebration of imperfection leaves him exhausted again. Still, what we see here is a beautiful embracing of the Lack. Welcoming and enjoying our Lack and dissatisfaction might leave us tired, but it’s the bone-weariness of hard worthy work.
In the guitar bridge to the fourth verse, the melody softens again, releasing us from the harsh reality of verse 3 and into a reality we haven’t experienced before. In verse 4, “I found my home in Babylon”; and in the chorus, we learn that this is located “here in exile.” The Lord, it seems, has not answered. The Lord has not provided a home. Pádraig’s softened voice moves in powerful vibrations of loneliness and loss. The promise of the first chorus’s final “-tha” is fulfilled. If the song were in minor, it would be a dirge. But the major chords maintain a pale yet animated joy, the final note a ringing, rising lightness that speaks to a new being. A new beginning. A new sort of life, in exile.
I don’t usually sit and analyze music like this, much to the dismay of my musician father and my musician husband. (There’s your bit of Freud for today. 😆) When I listen to music, it’s usually for fun, for mood boosting, for inspiring background to writing or painting. Most of the time, I don’t glom on to a favorite song the first time I hear it; it takes repeated listenings for the message and sound of it to sink in enough for me to say, “Oh yes, THIS.”
So writing a short analysis of Pádraig’s “Maranatha” reveals more to me than I would have heard otherwise. I see the dialectical move Peter wants to point out to us: God is said to be our strength when we’re weak — but even with God’s supposed strength, the singer is still weak, calling for God’s presence and intervention. Maybe God infuses strength — but there are still times when we’re so exhausted that we give up. Does the Lord care? Is there any divine intention to get us out of this mess? Apparently not, for the mess deepens: “I’ve fucked it up.” Well, so have we all. And PRAISE GOD that we did. Praise the Lord that the Lord didn’t intervene, because we can learn joy in dissatisfaction. Acknowledging and embracing our Lack frees us to live in exile, shaping a new life in hope and in lighter being. The weight of guilt and the burden of seeking God have lifted.
And maybe that’s what God wanted for us all along.