O Magnum Mysterium! – The Veil of Christmas
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
Dominum Iesum Christum.
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
As we pass once again through the veil of Christmas here are a few thoughts inspired by the beautiful antiphon above – O Magnum Mysterium!
Not being so liturgically minded I refer all questions regarding texts such as this to my old friend, the Rev’d Ian Coleman. He reminds me that the earliest manuscript we have of the text (illustrated here) dates from around 1000 AD which is presently in the important St Gallen Stiftsbibliothek. It is said to have been compiled by one Hartker, a Benedictine monk of the abbey. As Ian tells me: ‘the codex includes neumatic chant notation and is famous for two reasons: firstly as the oldest notated Antiphoner, thus the oldest musical source for chants for the Divine Office, and secondly because it contains a famous depiction of the Holy Spirit dictating the music of the chant to St Gregory the Great, a charming image.’
The text itself is as mysterious and ‘Christmassy’ as you can get and is the inspiration for so many nativity pictures of the virgin and child amongst the animals of the stable who look on in wonder at the miraculous birth before them. As we make then this transition from ‘ordinary time’ to ‘Christmas time’ over the next couple of weeks two reflections come to me:
First, there is the light entering the world of darkness, the world of ‘avidya’ – ignorance. One of the problems of starting Christmas in October (as happens in London nowadays) is there is not enough time to dwell on the darkness, the avidya, which will require the light to come. Without darkness (our darkness) how can we celebrate the light? And there has been a lot of darkness these past few months. Yet, it is precisely to enter this darkness that ‘the word becomes flesh’ – flesh shared with the animals of the manger in the shade of Bethlehem, then and now. Christmas, as hymned in this antiphon, sees the uncreated light restored and throughout the Gospel narratives we have hints that the creation story of Genesis is now being retold in our time and in our darkness. Once again the spirit is hovering over the dark waters. In July we had a wonderful ‘Friends of Sophia’ conference in Cambridge hosted by Fr Dominic White OP. There we were told that according to biblical tradition after the fall humanity could no longer hear the ‘music of the spheres’ – the singing of the divine choirs. Now, in this second creation as the darkness recedes, once again harmony is restored in creation and, finally, humanity may participate in the primal wonder of creation as the shepherds hear the angelic choirs (in antiphon of course) for the first time since the fall. So, once again, out of our delusion we find enlightenment, we are touched by the Holy Spirit, as Meister Eckhart reminds us, the Christ child is once again born in our souls.
So, we move from created space to uncreated space. In the words of Fr Thomas Kochumuttom CMI whom I had the joy of visiting in the spring: we ‘pass from the created level of existence to the uncreated one, so entering into the infinite expanse of eternity…’ further ‘what is more important is to know that we can realize such a state of existence even while living on earth in the body’. Which leads me to the second important reflection of the antiphon – the primary role given in it to the Virgin’s womb: Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum. Creation, time, once again begins at the Annunciation as the Spirit hovers over the Virgin’s womb (which is why the medieval year began on 25th March – as indeed why the accounting year still reflects this). Ian again: ‘Speculatively, the author(s) of the 'O magnum mysterium' text may be referring back to 1 Timothy 3:16:Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion (μέγα ἐστὶν τὸ τῆς εὐσεβείας μυστήριον):He was manifested in the flesh,vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels,preached among the nations,believed on in the world, taken up in glory.Here the phrase 'mega estin to... musterion' ('Great is the mystery [of our piety / religion]') corresponds exactly to the Responsory text 'O magnum mysterium', and is immediately followed by 'He was manifested in the flesh'. Commentators surmise that the paragraph that follows ('He was manifested.... taken up in glory') is a quotation of a pre-existing credal formula. If so, it is a good candidate for being part of the very first primordial kerygma, since 1 Timothy, even if not authentically Pauline, is still probably a late 1st-century document.’
So, much to dwell on in the coming days. As is said of the Buddha in the Mahasaccaka Sutta, on his arrival ‘Ignorance was dispelled, Wisdom arose, Darkness was dispelled, Light arose’. So might Christians reflect this thought as we watch once again for the coming of Light and the dispersal of ignorance from our troubled world. Happy Christmas Everyone!