O Magnum Mysterium is an ancient text used in the Matins service of Christmas. The Starlite Chorale performed it several years ago, using the setting by Tomas Luis da Victoria (1549–1611). After hearing it many times, the following are the images I imagined while singing it…(Mouse over the Latin text to read a translation.)
As the silent stars go by, one outshines her sisters, her light reaching out, as if to touch the blue world beneath. Steadily, as we descend, airless silence is replaced by the faint keening of the wind. The mountains of Ararat are unforgivingly cold tonight, and the vistas are harsh and stony everywhere. They promise no comfort, and give even less than that.
The wind carries distant music, music as high as this peak and as thin as the air.
Music draws us inexorably down the mountain, faster and faster, until we pass over a city on a wooded plateau. But the music doesn’t come from the city; it leads us across the miles to a town, a simple town, dark and quiet.
We see a stable. Inside are the animals in their places. We join with the cow and the ox, the ass and the horse, and watch a wondrous mystery unfold — and not a blessed one of us can comprehend it at all.
A woman holding something in her arms slowly kneels before a manger. Her bundle is an infant, comfortably wrapped in swaddling clothes. She holds the child in her arms and croons her wordless tune for just a moment more, then kisses him upon his forehead lays him down on the sweet hay in the animals’ manger. She rises and turns. Now we see her. Perfectly beautiful, perfectly youthful, she is filled with a love and a grace no man — not even Adam — had ever seen.
She gazes out of the stable, out over the sleeping child. This is not the source of the music, and it draws us on, and with it we fly swiftly to shepherds hearing and seeing
impossibly bright-winged uncountable angels singing to the music of the spheres and dancing in the air for joy.
They circle and traverse the sky above faster than the lightning —
faster than the light
and in joy ourselves, we are caught up with them in the clouds as they dance.
The shepherds are coming to the stable, bearing this memory, eagerly praying, singing, and rejoicing that they have seen what no man had ever seen before, and ready to find what the angel told them to seek. The mother shows the child to them now,
and they see his face —
and his eyes holding the deep secrets of creation.
Hearts strangely warmed,
the shepherds kneel around him and sing their own
- O Magnum Mysterium (netnewmusic.net)