One of the most vexatious and controversial aspects of Christianity is the idea behind current observances of Christmas, i.e., that an invisible force, called by Hebrews “Jahweh” or “the Lord God,” chose to become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Terminology used by theologians and historians down through the ages includes the doctrinal idea that Jesus is “consubstantial” with God, i.e., he and God are of the same substance or essential nature. Another common way to explain this phenomenon is to speak of a “triune” God, composed of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, thought by some biblical historians to be a way for monotheism to expand itself into something closer to earlier Egyptian/Greek/Roman religions founded on the idea of many gods to whom people prayed for specific things.
How much to emphasize the humanity of Jesus has been hotly contested for centuries and continues to divide Christians today. Those who play down his life as carpenter accent that period between his first time to preach in a synagogue, when all the priests recognized an extraordinary prophet, until his crucifixion at the hands of Romans who feared the effect this man’s words were having on a populace they needed to control utterly. Others find in his human development and mundane practices a profound connection to our own struggles and joys, so stress is laid on the extent of the invisible God’s love for us humans shown by being willing to experience what ordinary mortals experience. I belong to this latter group, so I much prefer the Apostle’s to the Nicene Creed because in the shorter and older creed, we find this crucial phrase: “he suffered death and was buried; he descended into Hell.” Whenever I say that phrase, I am struck again by how precise the framers of this creed were in wanting humans to realize that an all-knowing being was willing to experience even the worst possible fate, albeit only for supposedly three days between Good Friday and Easter. To me this signals that whatever “God” is to me has tasted the fiercest distance from godliness, so the God of my understanding can identify with and render solace to me in my lowest and worst moments of doubt and despair.
So I love it when we sing at my church a carol that speaks of Jesus as an infant and then a little child, laughing and feeling sad just like I did when I was little; who is hungry and tired but loves to play and run around just like I did. And it is a particular song, sung each Christmas Eve at the late night vigil that moves into Christmas mass, that catches the ineffable essence of what I think happened in that manger where Mary and Joseph, immigrants traveling to register as legal residents, were allowed to stop because Mary was going into labor and no respectable .inn would take them in as guests since they were not “proper” citizens.
It’s entitled “Mirabile Mysterium.” Mirabile means “wondrous to behold,” while mysterium is an alchemical term for unknown elements thought to make up new matter or a substance seen as an elemental or pure form of something else. In other words, the perfect phrase for “the birth of the baby Jesus.” Though the original text for this piece was written by Jacobus Gallus, the version I hear was commissioned for the choir at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The occasion was the installation of the tower bells and its composer, Anne Kistofte, incorporated the pitches of our bells which are the flat keys of the piano. People playing hand bells ring these pitches as the choir sings the original Latin words, while the huge bronze bells are ringing outside. I’m told by Teri Larson, the choir director, that the doors of the huge Basilica were flung open at the inaugural ringing–surely a highly metaphysical moment for those in the congregation. The piece always moves me to deep tears because the clear and unusual chording touches parts of me not usually accessible, the way music can do. I listen to the Latin and sense what is being said by how it sounds and how my body reacts to those pure sounds. Then when I get home, I read what the words mean in English and I drop all skepticism about the “logic” behind my belief that somehow an invisible presence is taking on human form in order for me, a human, to feel closer to an invisible presence.
Here are those translated words that I have no need to try and parse into logic. Instead I let them help me feel part of something incredibly bigger than my quotidian life in this terribly flawed world:
An innovation is made upon nature; God is made man;
that which he was, he remains,
and that which he was not, he takes on,
suffering neither commixture nor division.