The Great Mystery
One of the most beautiful chants in the Christmas mass is “O Magnum Mysterium,” translated:
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
our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
In the hustle and bustle leading toward Christmas, you’d be doing yourself a big favor by taking a quiet moment to watch the choir of King’s College, Cambridge,sing it here.
Each Advent as I move closer to Christmas Eve, I am more convinced that Anglican Bishop, Geoffrey Rowell, got it right when he described the Christian faith as “a revelation and a mystery–a revelation to be received and a mystery to be lived out.” He went on to say that “notes of awe, wonder, reverence and reserve” are “essential characteristics of Christian believing.”
There is a time and a place for intellectual analysis, skeptical debate and academic research around the doctrine of the incarnation, but Christmas Eve is not the time and the manger is not the place. Here, the only appropriate response is awe, wonder, reverence and humility as we celebrate the mystery of the Word becoming flesh among us.
Charles Wesley caught the mystery in one of his little-known Christmas carols:
Let earth and Heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
See in that infant’s face
The depths of deity,
And labor while ye gaze
To sound the mystery
In vain; ye angels gaze no more,
But fall, and silently adore.
He deigns in flesh t’appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
Mystery in the Mess
And here’s the thing: Whatever else the incarnation means, it means that the great mystery of God’s love in Christ is alive among us in the complex, conflicted, confusing mess of our ordinary lives and our broken world. The great mystery is not an esoteric flight from reality, but a present experience in our very real world. The incarnation is not just a doctrine to be believed, but “a mystery to be lived out” in the hustle and bustle, the joy and pain, the power and the politics, the hope and despair of our lives each day.
In fact, followers of Christ are called to be the continuing agents of God’s reconciling love and grace, not just on Christmas Eve, but on the other 364 days of the year.
Paul combined God’s mysterious work of reconciliation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with our work of reconciliation in the world when he wrote:
All this is God’s doing, for he has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ; and he has made us agents of the reconciliation. God was in Christ personally reconciling the world to himself—not counting their sins against them—and has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation. (II Corinthians 5:18-19)
When it comes down to it, the great mystery is not only that God came among us in Jesus, but that God intends to go into the world in the lives of people like every one of us. Now, that’s a great mystery!
Grace and peace,