Tuesday, December 24

O Magnum Mysterium

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio.
Beata virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Christum, Alleluia!

O great mystery
and wondrous sacrament,

that animals should see the newborn Lord
lying in their manger.
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

This text, part of the liturgy from the early church (perhaps used even before it was captured in the chants memorialized at Pope Gregory's command but certainly since the tenth century) is simple and yet points to a great mystery.  It is part of the early morning prayers for Christmas day -likely sung as a responsorial around midnight.  The first portion is derived from two texts associated by the early church with Christ's birth.  The first is straightforward enough and is from Luke 2:7:

"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn."

The other is a bit of a stretch but was employed by the early church in connection with the Nativity scene.  It is from the opening chapter of the prophet Isaiah verse 3:

"The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master's crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand."

The final two lines are connected with the exclamation made by Elizabeth when the pregnant Mary came to visit her (Luke 1:42-43):

"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.   And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?"

The text has been set to music many times and by some of the greatest choral composers: Gabrieli, Palestrina, Poulenc, Lauridsen, and others.

To me the first line captures the essence of the great mystery.  How is it and why is it that animals are among the very first to see the newborn Lord?  They are present to see the newborn Christ because God chooses such a humble and ordinary and vulnerable way to enter into human history.  It is such an odd way to come that we are left to assume that God's arrival in that way is meant to teach us something about how God does God's work, and how we might follow in that pattern.

Love always has an element of vulnerability to it.  To truly love means, in part, to make oneself vulnerable.  The incarnation of God in the form of a child born to peasants is consistent with that aspect of love.  God does not arrive at the head of an army in the capital city of the region.  God arrives in the simple confines of a peasant's home.  Though we have a long history of translating Luke's description of the place as "Inn," the word is more properly applied to a home -- something like a guest room.  As if birth to peasants in a little town in a backwater province of the Roman empire was not enough, the birth happens in the sort of home where the animals are brought inside for the night.  How mysterious is God's choice to be born into such a humble place!

Daily Collect
Lord of Love, you taught us saying, "Come to me all who are weary and heavily-laden and find rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me  for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls."  Help us who are eagerly anticipating your coming to learn from you the gentleness and humility which are central to your work of redemption.  Amen.

Paul Lang