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Something beautiful enough for Christmas: ‘O Magnum Mysterium’

If the role of sacred music is “sursum corda”, to lift up our hearts, then the US composer Lauridsen is a good and faithful servant. I gave you the excerpt last Christmas from his “O Nata Lux”, and I have had to wait a year to share this even more touching setting of the ancient “O Magnum Mysterium”. Everybody has had a go at setting this one – Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria et al – but none can hold a candle to this contemporary composer, at least on this occasion.

Because the words matter, I will post below another version, with the score and Latin words of this sweet motet – which reflects on the scene in the cave/stable outside Bethlehem where the animals looked on while the Mind of God took flesh and dwelt among us – with a face even they could look upon… They were there as the baby first took milk from his young mother and was comforted in the strong arms of his overwhelmed (to put it mildly) father. And it was all so hidden, as seems to be the way in God’s dealing with us.

I think the Lauridsen music does justice to the tenderness and transcendence of this scene. If the other two classical transcendentals – goodness and truth – are represented in the mother and baby, then the third, beauty, is worthily added in this sacred reflection; just listen to the crystal purity of the soprano note at 4.10 in the above recording on the the words ‘Dominum Jesum’ and then the too-perfect spread of the chord on ‘Alleluja’ straight after at 4.23,  and dare tell me that beauty is not a glimpse into the higher things that are usually obscured by our coarse and clouded minds…

How we need this scene of littleness and innocence, when even the Church is being ravaged from within by the foulest evil. How worthless we are, and yet how relentless must God’s love for us be.

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

English translation
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
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia!

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