Christmas, Day 10: Great Mystery

LOOK: O Magnum Mysterium by Joel Sheesley

Sheesley, Joel_O Magnum Mysterium
Joel Sheesley (American, 1950–), O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery), 2012. Oil on canvas, 72 × 44 in.

Hear the artist discuss the painting here:

LISTEN: “O Magnum Mysterium” | Words: Traditional | Music by Morten Lauridsen, 1994 | Performed by S:t Jacobs Ungdomskör (Saint Jacob’s Youth Choir), 2015

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.
Alleluia!

English translation:

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.
Alleluia!

This text, a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas, has been set by many composers over the centuries, including Palestrina, Poulenc, Victoria, Morales, and La Rocca. Morten Lauridsen’s setting—a motet for a cappella choir—is the most popular.

Note the discordant G# sung by the altos on the first syllable of “Virgo” (3:20 in the video), which alludes to the future suffering of Jesus and, by extension, his mother. This vulnerability, this self-giving, of God that results in death on a cross is a key aspect of the Incarnation.

In the second half of the piece, “the chords, the melody, and the range of voices broaden into an open and exhilarating space,” writes Amy Baik Lee, building up to the climax: “alleluia.” The release of that final word of praise “is sheer joy; it is the sound of creation made well and reveling in its freedom from the fathoms-deep trenches of sin, finally awestruck by the intricacy of its long rescue. . . . It is as a cup of cold water that sparkles with the air of a distant, beloved country.”

One thought on “Christmas, Day 10: Great Mystery

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