Monthly Archives: December 2014

O Great Mystery

The other day, my son told me about a Christmas present he had seen:  wrapped in paper with “Happy Birthday” all over, repurposed for the holiday by adding “Jesus” to every single instance. This is not desperate like that, even though it is about the birthday of Jesus.

I posted it today in order to say “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” as well as “Merry Christmas” to all.

There is a text about the birth of Christ, that comes from the old Catholic liturgy. It is in Latin, and called “O magnum mysterium“. Here is that text along with a translation:

O magnum mysterium
oh great mystery

et admirabile sacramentum,
and wondrous sacrament

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
that the animals should see the newborn Lord

jacentem in praesepio.
lying in a manger.

O beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
O Blessed Virgin, whose womb was judged worthy

portare Dominum Jesum Christum.
to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.

Alleluia!

It is a text often set to music. In the 20th century, a famous setting is by the composer Morten Lauridsen; this one comes from the 16th century, set by Tomás Luis de Victoria. I love its four intertwining choral parts, and how they seem to make the words especially poignant and meaningful.

The Starlite Chorale has performed this version many times. While singing it, I once imagined particular images, each one connected to one of its phrases, including the stars, the Earth, the mountains of Ararat, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the virgin mother and child, and the shepherds and the Heavenly Host.

If I had been able to turn this into an animated short film, I would have done it by now. Unable to manage that, I’d like one day to perform it with the Chorale singing the text behind my meditation. This recording consists of my narration backed up by four choral parts which I programmed into a free and open source program called MuseScore. The Choral Public Domain Library is the source for this version of O magnum mysterium  (CPDL #26279), and was originally published in the 1853 collection, Musica Divina , so it is firmly in the public domain.

It starts without any music to accompany the following text.

As the silent stars go by,
one shines brighter than all her sisters,
reaching out with dazzling light
as if to touch the blue planet beneath.

Slowly, as we descend,
airless silence is replaced by the faint keening of the wind.
The mountains of Ararat are cold tonight,
and the vistas are harsh and stony everywhere.
They offer no comfort,
and give even less than that.

(Click here to play the recording.)

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.