At the Christmas Eve service at my church, the first half hour is choral music sung both by the large and excellent choir and by the congregation. One of the choir offerings this past year was a setting of “Mirabile Mysterium,” written by Anne Kilstofte to commemorate the first tolling of large bells in the Basilica’s belfry. I want to ponder the meaning of the last stanza translated from the Latin: “That which he was/he remained,/and that which he was not/he assumed:/suffering neither mixture/nor division.”
Though I initially thought “Oh, this is a classic riddle like those found in some fairy tales,” as I listened to the hauntingly beautiful chords coming from the 90-voiced choir, I knew I was being asked to accept the quintessential paradox that lies at the very heart of Christianity. What I and many other contemporary Christians believe is that what we mark on December 25th is not just the birth of the baby Jesus who will become the lynch-pin of our faith, but we are being asked to accept the tremendous generosity of a god who decided to take on human form in order that humans could inch just a little closer to goodness and love.
Parsing the quoted lines, I feel on familiar but exciting ground. God stays just as was true before Jesus is born; simultaneously, God becomes what has never been before this historic moment, i.e., human. Then the last two lines give voice to ultimate mystery: God becomes human while remaining divine, and, miraculous mystery indeed, this seeming bifurcation causes no alteration at all in the original divinity. This is something perhaps an avowed mystic or a brilliant chemist might grasp. If we try to “figure it out,” we will get nowhere, that’s why it’s the ultimate paradox. We simply have to stand before this moment and accept that the God of our understanding is simultaneously the deepest abstraction and the most mundane infant in a bed of straw out under the stars. This is a prophetic declaration not a scientific or rational hypothesis. For my part, I am able to rest inside this seeming impossibility. And giving my assent to the final assertion fills me with spiritual excitement: my God is “suffering neither mixture/nor division.” My God is inviting me into the mirabile mysterium if I have the imaginative stamina to accept.