Merry Divinization!

The Gregorian Chant propers of the Christmas Midnight Mass compose one of the most beautiful liturgical-exegetical-dogmatic artworks that one can find in the Latin chant tradition.

The Introit antiphon is

Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te. (Ps 2:7)
“The Lord said to me: My son are you, today I…”

– and there starts the misunderstanding. This verse is generally translated as “today I have begotten you:” a strictly male metaphor. But the Latin gignere – as well as its Greek and Hebrew origins in the Bible – can mean either “beget someone” or “give birth to someone;” or both at the same time when it comes to metaphorical language. In the context of Christmas “I have given birth to you” makes more sense, because it is the birth of the Christ child that is celebrated. Fathering has its own solemnity on March 25.

It is a pity that Germanic languages do not offer a word that describes the father’s part in the beginning of life as well as the mother’s. We have to decide whether to focus a translation on the male or the female aspect, and on Christmas it is obvious that the maternal metaphor needs to be in the foreground.

At first sight the idea that a male (dominus) gives birth might sound weird, but we use the same metaphor in the Creed:

“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.”

The next Gregorian chant in the Midnight Mass is the Gradual:

Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae: in splendoribus sanctorum, et utero ante luciferum genui te. (Ps 110(109):3)

Again genui te, “I have given birth to you.” The female metaphor is much more obvious, as the birth happens ex utero, “from the uterus.” But the temporal marker is different: not “today,” but ante luciferum, “before the morning star.” As a metaphor that does not necessarily mean “very early in the morning,” but rather “before all Creation” (cf. Gen 1:1–5 and 14–19). The Christian liturgy establishes a tie between the Creed (“born of the Father before all ages”) and the liturgical use of the Old Testament psalm (“I have given birth to you before all Creation”).

When we combine both verses from Introit and Gradual, we are confronted with a theological mystery: I have given birth to you “today” and “before all Creation!”

This mystery is ping-pong-wisely continued in two of the following chants of Midnight Mass. The verse of the Allelujah is again Ps 2:7: Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te, and the Communion antiphon is again Ps 110(109):3: In splendoribus sanctorum, ex utero ante luciferum genui te.

I tend to say that this liturgical play with two verses from the Old Testament expresses the entire theology of Christmas: In the birth of Christ, in the epiphany of God among humans in time and space, the terrestrial and the celestial, temporality and eternity are brought together and reconciled to each other. Amidst perishable history, eternal divinity is present. The message of Christmas is: You need not despair of your fleetingness. All fleetingness is dignified. Every single moment bears a signature of eternity, because God himself did not hesitate to be part of the perishable world. The hodie (“today”) of the birth of Christ that tears down the wall to eternity is our own hodie: Here and now our own existence is dignified, because there is no insurmountable border between Heaven and Earth anymore. Christmas is the celebration of the unity of Heaven and Earth.

Does this sound a bit too lofty? Well, not for the fifth chant of the Midnight Mass, the Offertory:

Laetentur caeli, et exsultet terra ante faciem Domini: quoniam venit. (Ps 96(95):11 and 13)
“The heavens shall be glad, and the earth shall rejoice before the Lord, for he has come.”

Leo the Great said in one of his Christmas homilies: “Christian, remember your dignity, as you share in God’s divine nature.” Christmas celebrates what the Eastern tradition calls theosis: divinization. Hopefully not in arrogance or presumption – as it happened and still happens among Christians –, but in thankfulness for God’s maternal grace which alone has the power to overcome any fleetingness and fulfill it with heavenly joy.

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7 comments

  1. Thank you for this lovely reflection. Sometimes in the Roman tradition, it’s the musical dimension that brings the words to fuller, deeper and broader life. As with William Byrd’s inimitable setting of “Hodie Christus Est”, where one can hear the interweaved ascending and descending cascades (with oodles of text painting that rival Handel’s) as emblematic of the glorification of human nature by being joined to divine nature:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_75v_jBOQ8

    Hodie Christus natus est,
    Hodie Salvator apparuit,
    Hodie in terra canunt Angeli,
    laetantur Archangeli.
    Hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
    Gloria in excelsis Deo.
    Alleluia.

  2. This is hilarious: https://catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2018/12/21/why-we-should-be-able-to-celebrate-the-old-rite-in-the-vernacular/?fbclid=IwAR1qwhm_BIRf8dtmgo7vxS7M4Rw18HVAhHVzUSHZVuQsWoIgYUmMtbQ8sfc

    The EF attracted crowds at first but they soon drifted away, whether because people had only so much time for muttering in an unintelligible language or because the EF ideologists were off-putting. Now they want to win back the crowds by diluting the magic formula. The Mass of the Ages, invariable from China to Peru, now turns out to be a matter of muttering in every modern dialect. What next? Having the priest face the people? Are they going to reinvent the wheel of Vatican II?

    1. Is that the proposal that the heretofore EF Latin masses celebrated at the Oratory should be celebrated in English or really a plea that the OF English masses should now be celebrated as EF masses in the vernacular?

  3. “Midnight Mass”? As in Mass During the Night? At the Vatican this year I read it starts at 9:30pm. Much easier on those who have a full day on Christmas.

      1. As in the word’s The Chanticleer’s Carol (William Austin, published 1635):

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECxr3dbWdnI

        1. All this night shrill chanticleer,
        Day’s proclaiming trumpeter,
        Claps his wings and loudly cries,
        “Mortals, mortals, wake and rise!
        See a wonder
        Heaven is under,
        From the earth is risen a Sun
        Shrines all night though day be done.

        2. Wake, O earth, wake everything,
        Wake and hear the joy I bring,
        Wake and joy; for all this night
        Heaven and every twinkling light,
        All amazing,
        Still stand gazing,
        Angels, powers and all that be,
        Wake and joy this Sun to see.

        3. Hail, O Sun, O blessed Light,
        Sent into the world by night,
        Let thy rays and heavenly powers
        Shine in this dark soul of ours;
        For most duly
        Thou art truly
        God and man we do confess.
        Hail, O Sun of Righteousness!

  4. That is a really helpful reflection, thank you so much. I had not thought about Psalm 110 like that before. I may even quote it sometime as a homily.

    On a lighter matter, A good reason for not having ‘Midnight Mass’ at midnight in the UK used to be that you entered a packed church full of complete strangers and smelling strongly of beer.

    When We moved it (by referendum) to 8pm in my last Parish, the church was full of regular parishioners. Then, later, I peeped out through the curtains at 11.55pm and saw the complete strangers rolling up for ‘Midnight Mass.’

    I have to confess to a slight feeling of schadenfreude (I think that’s the correct term) …

    AG

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