An Advent Paradox: Very God of Very God Came Down

sunrise122016

 

The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation.
It is not tame.
It is not beautiful.
It is uninhabitable terror.
It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.
Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself.

You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this:
“God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,”
as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”  

Came down.

Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see.
It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms.
It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

 

Wavecrash2

 

[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which, 
rushing up on the flat beach, 
runs out, even thinner and more transparent, 
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

 

fidalgobeach

 

He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory. 
1Timothy 3:16

 

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back,
again and again, to read the story of how God came down and disappeared into us.

How can this be?
God appearing on earth first to animals, then the most humble of humans.

How can He be?
Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit,
the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

 

God Was Here: I Greet Him

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I am soft sift 
In an hourglass—at the wall 
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift, 
And it crowds and it combs to the fall; 
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane, 
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall 
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein 
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift. 
I kiss my hand 
To the stars, lovely-asunder 
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and 
Glow, glory in thunder; 
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west: 
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder, 
His mystery must be instressed, stressed; 
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand. 
It dates from day 
Of his going in Galilee; 
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey; 
Manger, maiden’s knee; 
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat; 
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be, 
Though felt before, though in high flood yet— 
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from The Wreck of the Deutschland
sunset917166
Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory. 
1Timothy 3:16

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back, again and again, to read the story.  He visited us and never left.  We greet Him then and now — we who are nothing but soft sift in an hourglass.

How can this be?  God appearing on earth first to animals, and then to the most humble of humans.

How can He be?  Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit, the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

sunsettexture

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 new-born Lord lying in their Manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

Preparing the Heart: Came Down from Heaven

the-nativity-le-nain
The Nativity by Le Nain, Antoine and Louis (d.1648) & Mathieu (1607-77)

The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”
Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark

empty1

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
 
but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2: 6-8

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[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which,
rushing up on the flat beach,
runs out, even thinner and more transparent,
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

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 new-born Lord lying in their Manger!
Blessed is the Virgin
whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

An Advent Tapestry–O Magnum Mysterium

The Nativity by Federico Fiori Barocci

My daughter and I attended the local Bellingham Chamber Chorale Christmas concert tonight, conducted by her choir teacher Ryan Smit.  Among the many beautiful pieces performed were three versions of O Magnum Mysterium, a Catholic Christmas Day Latin responsory that celebrates the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth.  Our favorite, and clearly the crowd’s favorite, was the Morten Lauridsen version.

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 new-born Lord lying in their Manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

The Lauridsen version can be heard here

The composer,  Morten Lauridsen, is a Washington state native who was born only a few miles from where my mother grew up in the wheat fields of the Palouse, and now lives in retirement in the San Juan Islands.  He wrote about his inspiration for this piece for the Wall Street Journal, by trying to write something that honored the words as much as the Still Life painted by Zurbaran honored the Virgin Mary.

Still Life by Zurbaran

In Lauridsen’s words:

“Zurbarán (1598-1664) is the painter of “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.” The objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.

In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ’s birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I sought to impart, as Zurbarán did before me, a transforming spiritual experience within what I call “a quiet song of profound inner joy.” I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.

The most challenging part of this piece for me was the second line of text having to do with the Virgin Mary. She above all was chosen to bear the Christ child and then she endured the horror and sorrow of his death on the cross. How can her significance and suffering be portrayed musically?

After exploring several paths, I decided to depict this by a single note. On the word “Virgo,” the altos sing a dissonant appoggiatura G-sharp. It’s the only tone in the entire work that is foreign to the main key of D. That note stands out against a consonant backdrop as if a sonic light has suddenly been focused upon it, edifying its meaning. It is the most important note in the piece.

“O Magnum Mysterium” had its 1994 premiere by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Paul Salamunovich. Widely recorded with thousands of performances throughout the world since then, it owes much to its visual model, Zurbarán’s magnificent “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.” ”

I am very grateful to Mr. Lauridsen for his inspiration, his composition, the direction of Mr. Smit and the lovely voices of the Bellingham Chamber Choir who sung tonight.  You did indeed illumine through sound.