A few years ago I watched a Christmas Midnight Mass broadcast on the television from Westminster Cathedral in London. At the Offertory the choir sang a beautiful piece of music that I had never heard before but which touched me very deeply. Later I discovered it was called O Magnum Mysterium by the American composer Morten Lauridsen.
The words are from the responsorial chant for Matins (ie. Morning Prayer) of Christmas Day.
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum
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 the Lord, Jesus Christ.
When I reflected upon those words which Lauridsen chose to set to his amazing music there were three things which immediately struck me. First they remind us that the birth of Jesus Christ was and remains a great mystery, something beyond our comprehension. Secondly they describe it as a “wonderful sacrament” although it is clearly not one of the seven Sacraments that we traditionally associate with our lives as Catholics within the Church. And thirdly they tell us that the eyes that first gazed upon the face of the infant Jesus (apart from those of Mary and Joseph) were not the eyes of human beings but those of the animals whose place of shelter was the humble stable in which the Son of God was born.
In a General Audience address given shortly before Christmas 2011 Emeritus Pope Benedict said:
“With the Christmas liturgy the Church ushers us into the great Mystery of the Incarnation. Christmas, in fact, is not merely an anniversary of Jesus’ Birth; it is also this, but it is more, it is celebrating a mystery that has marked and continues to mark human history. God Himself came to dwell among us (cf. Jn 1:14), He made Himself one of us. It is a mystery that concerns our faith and our life; a mystery that we actually experience in the liturgical celebrations and, in particular, in Holy Mass."
Those profound words of the Holy Father also help us to understand the birth of Christ as a Sacrament or, to put it another way, to understand Christ Himself as the supreme Sacrament in whom all the Sacraments of the Church have their source and from whom they receive their power. A sacrament is an indisputable sign of Christ present and at work in human lives and before the Sacraments were ever given as gifts to the Church there had first to be the gift of the Sacrament of Christ Himself. Every sacrament affords us a personal encounter with Jesus who is the well-spring of God’s grace.
No part of our world, no creature within it remains untouched and unaffected by the birth of the Saviour. Life on earth in all its many forms has been transformed and glorified by the “mystery” and “sacrament” we are celebrate with millions of Christians across the globe.