Sunday, December 31, 2006

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Happy Seventh Day of Christmas.

Christmas is multi-dimensional. There's the very concrete narrative of Christmas Eve, brought to us by St Luke, with the angels and shepherds and animals gathered at the manger. Such concreteness is important; a sacrament, after all, has to have an outward and visible sign. But that aspect of Christmas is surely vulnerable to "Hallmarkization," to being taken hostage by the cult of cute.

So I am grateful for the Christmas that is brought to us by St John, in the mystical prologue to the Fourth Gospel, with light penetrating darkness and the Word becoming flesh. This is the "inward and spiritual grace" of Christmas. It may be more cerebral and theological than the warm and fuzzy nativity scene. But it is also cosmic in scope, and indicative of the grand mysterium fidei--the mystery of faith.

Back in a previous lifetime--aka the mid-seventies--I earned a Master of Arts degree in Music History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. (I was dissuaded from an academic career by an awareness of the role politics plays in such environments, so I opted for an ecclesiastical career instead, which is free of politics. .... Right?) My thesis focused on a capella settings of the Latin Mass composed in the twentieth century. Composers who set out to write a choral setting of the Mass texts have to deal one way or another with the intertial momentum of a great number of formal conventions accumulated over the centuries. One such convention is that when the text of the Nicene Creed gets to et incarnatus est ("and became incarnate"), the music gets simple, slow, and quiet. This mood lasts through, and culminates with, et homo factus est ("and was made man").

For the record, most twentieth century composers who set the Mass dutifully followed this convention. It reflects the same impetus that leads to bowing or genuflecting at these words of the creed, or standing quietly in place when the Angelus bell is rung. It is a response of the heart and spirit, not to the touching story of a harrowing experience for a young mother giving birth under difficult circumstances, or to a cute baby, but to the crushing mystery of the Infinite becoming finite, the Eternal becoming temporal, the Great becoming small, the Wholly Other becoming familiar, and the inaccessibly Far becoming accessibly near. In the words of the ancient Matins antiphon for the First Sunday after Christmas: "While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her swift course, your Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of your royal throne." The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us: Come, let us adore him.

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