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    a painting of animals at The Nativity

    Revelation and Mystery

    The hymn “O Magnum Mysterium” celebrates the joy of Christ’s birth while simultaneously foreshadowing his crucifixion and resurrection.

    By Joel Clarkson

    December 19, 2023
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    The great medieval hymn “O Magnum Mysterium” celebrates the mystery of the Incarnation, taking us past the final stretch of Advent to peer in through the window at the nativity scene of Luke 2. It has captivated the imaginations of Christians throughout the centuries in the way its simple text unfolds into deeper and deeper layers of revelation of the Word made flesh in Christ. Originally a chant for the matins of Christmas, the scene presented in the hymn exemplifies the wondrous Christmas joy of Emmanuel, God with us; and yet its sacramental overtones also stretch out beyond Advent or Christmastide, foreshadowing Christ’s offering up of himself in his paschal acts of Crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension. There is a strange convergence in the “O Magnum Mysterium” of the Incarnation and the Cross, of joy and melancholy, of revelation and mystery. 

    Here, we hear the Choir of the Benedictine Monks of Our Lady of Monserrat, Spain:

     

    O magnum mysterium,
    et admirabile sacramentum,
    ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
    iacentem in praesepio!

    O beata virgo, cuius viscera
    meruerunt portare
    Dominum Iesum Christum.
    Alleluia!

    O great mystery,
    and wonderful sacrament,
    that animals should see newborn Lord,
    lying in a manger!

    O blessed virgin, whose womb
    was worthy to bear
    the Lord Jesus Christ.
    Alleluia!

    On first glance, the hymn sets the beauty of Christ’s Incarnation in the moments after his birth. It encapsulates the extraordinary sacramental reality hidden behind the decidedly ordinary trappings of the scene. The infinite God beyond being, the ancient of days, resides in the body of a helpless infant, taking its first breaths and resting in its mother’s arms. In this spirit the hymn offers praise for Mary, the one whose humble and willing “yes” given to the angel Gabriel allows for the seemingly impossible to become possible, for the uncontainable, infinite God to be contained in the finite vulnerability of a human womb. Here, in this ordinary stable in what might be any small, forgotten town in a backwater part of the world, surrounded by bumbling, lowing donkeys, the God who is beyond all imagination steps into time and becomes tangible, visible, and knowable.

    And yet, as we consider those animals, they themselves suddenly tilt us into an entirely different understanding of “O Magnum Mysterium”. The hymn celebrates the radiant sign of the Incarnate Christ not through the witness of grateful shepherds or the glory of the angelic host, but rather that of beasts of burden, who see, in place of their food, a human child. In the scene set by the “O Magnum Mysterium,” the very animals themselves are given the foresight for what those beholding the joy of the birth of Christ may not yet fully grasp: that the Word has become flesh to be given as the sustenance for the world. The Incarnate Christ who is laid in a feeding trough for animals will in time give himself as the meal laid upon the communion table. This is the sacrament which the animals in the “O Magnum Mysterium” teach us to recognize. The hymn sees in the nativity the first unfurling petal of the flower of Christ’s paschal offering of himself, the flower which continues to open up into more lustrous bloom in each instance that we participate in that great Sacrament.

    And the animals teach us something further as well. Through their creaturely eyes, beholding the glory of the human Christ, we grasp the cosmic dimensions of the Incarnation. The Word becoming flesh is something which speaks not only to the salvation of humankind, but to the whole of the created world. The great Eastern Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann grasps this in a potent way in describing humans as those who were to be priests of the world, to sanctify creation and offer it back to God in praise. And when we failed in our vocation, Christ returned creation to that final end for which it was intended: “He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.” In the eyes of common barnyard animals we see reflected the glory of what creation longs to be, and which, in Christ, it will be someday.

    Finally, in and through this Eucharistic foreshadowing, our vision is expanded to see, in the not-so-far distance, the cross, the ultimate end which the Incarnation anticipates. For it was this purpose for which Christ came, the man born to die so that all may live in him. Even before the suffering of the cross, Christianity has always understood God’s Incarnation as an act of kenosis, a stepping out of the glory proper to God and sacrificially assuming the humility of human flesh. In this way, the Incarnation already foresees Christ’s complete offering of himself upon the cross; the two events are inextricably linked. In its signification of the Eucharistic Christ, the hymn reveals to us as the observers what the Christian East calls the “bright sadness,” the strange and terrible beauty of the sorrow that leads to the final joy. Indeed, the “O Magnum Mysterium” reveals to us how this child has come to wound our own cold and shut hearts, to pierce them open and fill them with his presence.

    The “O Magnum Mysterium” has captured the fascination of many composers over the centuries. Two contemporary settings particularly encapsulate its contrasting dimensions, opening them up through musical expression.

    The American composer Morten Lauridsen’s setting of the “O Magnum Mysterium” attends to the radiant import of the Incarnation. It opens upon a reverent attention to the “magnum mysterium,” the “great mystery,” and then ascends to a soaring height over the words “et admirabile sacramentum.” Repeating this musical phrase, it once again rises upward on the same melodic line, but this time over the words “ut animalia,” affirming to its listeners the resplendent, sacramental beauty of the infinite Divine encased within the ordinary simplicity of a child in a manger, given to the eyes of mere animals. Lauridsen reserves a special tenderness for the attention to the hymn’s extolling of Mary, giving us a sense of the intensely human gentleness that is so uniquely expressed by a mother with her newborn child. In its slow, warm suspensions and swells, Lauridsen’s setting grasps the wonder of the Lord who is king over all creation, made into the defenseless body of a tiny child.

    Here, Barnaby Smith conducts the choral octet VOCES8:

    Where Lauridsen’s music soars into the heights, Poulenc’s setting delves into the depths. In comparison to the resplendence of Lauridsen’s opening passage, Poulenc’s setting opens with a short, unrepeated passage swaying around a chromatic harmony, which almost feels like the incipit of a chant. In its own expression of the main theme, rather than emphasizing the joyful revelation of God’s divinity to animal eyes, Poulenc instead highlights the words “iacentem in praesepio” – “lying in the manger” – with a sudden burst of passionate expressivity. Only in its treatment of Mary does the piece turn to a more consoling harmony; and yet, even in that moment, the passage ends suddenly and ambiguously, as if already perceiving the sorrow that will soon mingle with the joy of a mother’s love of her child. One might hear, in Poulenc’s plaintive, restrained phrases, that strange mystery of the Eucharistic Christ already imaged in the very moment of the joy of the Incarnation. Poulenc opens up for the listener an aural icon of bright sadness, encapsulating the intertwining threads of joy, grief, love, pain, hope, and redemption.

    Again, Barnaby Smith conducts VOCES8:

    In the splendor of the Incarnation, we are given eyes to see, with the animals gathered around the Holy Family in the stable, the full extent of the love that bent down into a suffering, sinful world, not only taking on its corporeality, but becoming the Word made flesh – the bread and wine of salvation – for the whole of the world. In the “O Magnum Mysterium,” we too are invited to gaze in wonder at this holy sacrament, and to live out its mystery in our lives.

    Contributed By Joel Clarkson Joel Clarkson

    Joel Clarkson is a composer of film, concert, and sacred music, and he holds a PhD in theology from University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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