Of Music and Mysteries

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By Melanie Williams (Nov 28, 2018)
The following was first published in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Marian Helper magazine. View the digital edition or order a free copy:

Nothing quite distinguishes this time of the year like the music that surrounds us day and night. In the stores, in the streets, and on the radio, countless Christmas jingles and carols emanate around us.

When we enter our churches, the atmosphere has an added air of sanctity, the music distinctly different. Our liturgies and music aid our contemplative waiting during the season of Advent, a time of prayer and penance. Then we rejoice in wonderment and awe at the sight of our newborn King at Christmas. A great mystery is at hand — the true "reason for the season." And all with its own astonishing soundtrack!

Ancient traditions, ever timely
For centuries, the Church has turned to the same prayers and antiphons during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. This tradition leads us into the deep mystery of the Incarnation — of how our Heavenly Father, for the sake of our salvation, sent us His Only Begotten Son, born of an Immaculate Virgin in the most humble of manners.

Then, on that holy night, Christmas Eve, we wait with bated breath to celebrate the birth of our Savior. O magnum mysterium. O great mystery.

This phrase comes from an ancient antiphon for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord. It has been sung throughout the centuries and set to music by various composers. The Latin text, translated to English, reads:

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.

In 1994, the American composer Morten Johannes Lauridsen wrote a new musical setting for O magnum mysterium. The result received a Grammy nomination. I highly recommend you add this piece of music to your Advent and Christmas soundtrack.

Wanting to relate his setting to history and religiosity (echoing the atmosphere of the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant) while not complicating the message, Lauridsen worked on the piece for six months. He noted in an interview with the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music that the antiphon primarily speaks to "God's grace to the meek and veneration of the Virgin Mary."

Lauridsen's composition sounds like chant while having the feeling of floating on air. He said composing the work proved easy enough, but the part he lost sleep over was the line "Blessed is the Virgin."

"How can I, in a very direct piece, indicate her sorrow — her profound sorrow — of seeing her Son murdered?" Lauridsen contemplated. He used one note to do it: a G-sharp, far afield from the key of D in which the rest of the piece is set. The G-sharp falls on the word Virgo (Virgin) to highlight the great mystery of the Immaculate Conception.

I love that detail.

'Gift of the merciful God'
Truly, when contemplating the mysteries of the Immaculate Conception and the Nativity of our Lord in this sacred season, we confront two things: God's Divine Mercy and our own response to it. Like the Mother of God, we, too, are called to become humble, holy, and immaculate (see Eph 5:27).

Marian theologian Fr. Janusz Kumala, MIC, in his recently published article, "The Immaculate Conception as the Icon of the Mercy of the Triune God: Inspiration for the Spiritual Life and Apostolate," put it succinctly. He wrote, "The truth of the Immaculate Conception requires of us an attitude of wonder and contemplation."

So, too, does the great mystery, the magnum mysterium, of our God-become-Man, which we celebrate every Christmas.

Father Kumala added, "For the contemporary Christian, God often appears as a strict Father, acting in accord with the logic of human justice, in which there is no place for mercy. ... The gift of the Immaculate Conception convinces us, that everything in our human life is a disinterested gift of the merciful God."

We are reminded of this as we celebrate each Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 — and on each Christmas Day.

These powerful mysteries tear down our misconceptions of an angry, vengeful God and remind us of the truth — that we have a Heavenly Father who is "Love and Mercy itself" (see Diary of Saint Maria Faustina, 1273).

As Fr. Kumala further noted, "The message about God, who embraces each man with His love, becomes the balm for broken hearts and prevents them from succumbing to the temptation of despair, which so easily appears in the context of manifold forms of evil."

The Blessed Virgin Mary was the first one to allow herself to be fully transformed by God's love. And we are called to this as well. As Fr. Kumala writes, "Our growth in immaculacy of heart, though marked by sin, as well as the experience of mercy, occurs through the ceaseless reception of the gift of God's love."

As you enter into this Advent and Christmas season, take time to quiet your heart and mind, perhaps aided by sacred music such as Lauridsen's astonishing soundtrack of salvation, O Magnum Mysterium. Enter into these sacred mysteries and allow the reality of God's love and mercy, manifested in our Immaculate Mother and the sacred birth of our Savior, to wash over you. May the love of God be music to your ears.

To be remembered at the three Christmas Day Masses at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, visit marian.org/b40.

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