et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Tonight, we come to the second greatest event in Christendom, the birth of Jesus. Some will consider me an apologist for God, purveyor of myth (in the true meaning of a myth, I am), childlike (yep), superstitious (never), or simply irrational (sometimes). Some may say that Christians have co-opted other traditions (syncretism), commercialized a sacred belief (agreed), and/or persecuted those who aren’t “believers” (regrettably). But on this night, all I can see is the hope lying in a modest dwelling, not in a palace or floating on a yacht or drifting magically through the sky. The baby is human and real and vulnerable and generating the love and peace and hope that we appear, at first glance, to have so little of. It is the great mystery. It’s a gift. It’s irresistible. Seize it.
O Magnum Mysterium, from the Matins said by the Church at Christmas, comes as close to expressing how I feel about Jesus’ birth as anything I’ve read or recited or sung. Two musical settings, written 400 years apart, particularly convey the mystery. The elder was written by the 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria and the more contemporary (1994) by American composer Morten Lauridsen. Both are a joy to experience as a singer, the harmonies, dynamics, and movements telling the story as much as the words do. Listen to the simple, ancient words in any of the fine versions on YouTube.
When caroling with friends, visiting shut-ins, or even singing in the bar of an upscale tavern, as much as we bring the good news of Jesus’ birth to our community, we share our own joy with one another. At one stop, we were even joined by a kennel full of foxhounds howling along (no, it wasn’t someone singing out of tune). In the clear, cold sky, Orion made his winter appearance, just as he did on that holy night. Same stars. Same creation. Same love. Same hope.
On Christmas Eve, as I sing with these same friends in the choir at the 265-year old church where I worship regularly, I will face this beautiful window. Floodlights outside will illuminate God’s beloved creation. The animals will breathe comfort. The angels will shine gloriously. Mary and her baby will glow. The mystery will be clear.
Inside, the lights will dim when we sing “Silent Night” as the Eucharist ends, and most eyes will be damp. What moves us? Sorrow? Dementia? Hallucination? An evolutionary, even reptilian, reaction to sound waves? It’s a mystery. The Eucharist itself foretells the greatest event in Christendom that we will observe in a few short months. Another mystery. More improbability. More irrationality. More hope.
All of these mysteries engender love and peace and hope, if we embrace them. It doesn’t mean that we put down our intellect or our reason. It doesn’t mean that we dominate others. All earthly life is messy. Scripture does not promise us otherwise. It promises that, in all the messiness of sin and pain and sorrow, God will continue to send that love and peace and hope that heals and sustains us. Gloria in excelsis!
As I age, I learn that I don’t need an explanation for everything that happens. I know the nuts and bolts of life, the tools of physical survival, but the unmeasurable part of me, my faith, lifts me when I cannot lift myself. How does faith work? It’s a mystery, but to me, it’s very rational. Like planking, which strengthens my physical core, I work on it. As I work at staying in touch with friends, I work at staying in touch with God through prayer and study and fellowship and evangelism and stewardship, all of which are concrete and very real. Frequently, I fall, but others, who also see the mystery, are there to help me upward and onward. We are God’s gifts to one another. We are God’s love and peace and hope. So, who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!