Art and About
Engaging with the creative force in everyday life

December 9th, 2007

Tonight on Unsolved Mysteries: Christmas!

Posted by christina in Web Columns

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum
natum jacentem in praesepio.

Beata Virga, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare Dominum
Jesum Christum.

The text of “O Magnum Mysterium” has crossed my path a few times in the 31 years I have been singing in choirs. The translation reads:

O great mystery
and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in their manger.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear the Lord
Jesus Christ.

Although I often work with directors who insist we understand the words we are saying, no matter what language we sing in, I hadn’t given this text much thought beyond a simple word-for-word translation. My current choir is preparing a setting of this text by César Alejandro Carrillo for our upcoming Christmas concert and our director, speaking with the awe and wonder worthy of a great mystery, reflected on how truly extraordinary it was that a god made flesh would first be seen by animals. By animals!

I was raised in the Christian tradition so I don’t remember a time I couldn’t recite the story of Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem and finding no room in the inn so Mary had to deliver the baby Jesus in a stable. As a child, I accepted the story. As an adult, I see some feasibility issues and a tremendous willingness on the listener’s part to leap into a serious state of suspension of disbelief. As a storyteller, I have to admire the high drama produced by the contrast of having a long-awaited messiah make his worldly appearance in a stable. It’s a story that keeps the crowds coming back for more generation after generation.

I’ve always imagined the stable and hay, the holy family, the shepherds and the three wise men, but I haven’t devoted a lot of brain cells to the animals. They weren’t blind and deaf. They surely reacted to the interruption of their evening stable-time when these two humans showed up and delivered a baby. They were the only witnesses to the birth. That is truly wondrous.

Whether you look at the story as myth, as fact, or as metaphor, the basic concept of a god appearing to animals first is unusual to a Euro-centrist culture. So unusual, that I think it is downplayed most of the time until you look at a text like “O Magnum Mysterium.”

This week we are decorating our house for Christmas and I spent several hours assembling 21 crèches that I was given by my mother. It is her collection, for which she has no space in her new home, so she unloaded a trunk full of boxes on my doorstep last year. I was honored since I used to love setting up the collection every Christmas season when I was growing up. The crèches are from a multitude of cultures, all hand-made and fairly unique, if you’re used to the one that people light up on their lawns at this time of year. They all have the basic players of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Usually there is a shepherd, sometimes an angel, most of the time the 3 kings are part of the set. A few have a stable backdrop.

All but two of these crèches have animals. The two crèches from African nations have more animals per capita than the ones from Peru, Mexico, nations in Asia or countries of Europe. Since the artists of each crèche give their work the flavor of their heritage, I began to think about the direct relationship between animals and humans as represented in the respective artistry of each ethnic point of view.

I like to set up the crèches, but it is time consuming and I admit that over the years, I have fallen into a pattern for each vignette — the family in the center with the three kings off to the left, a shepherd off to the right (often near a symbolic sheep or two) and if there is an angel, it goes slightly behind the scene, looking on. If there are animals, I usually scatter them about in the background, minding their own business.

This year, though, the abundance of animals in the African crèches made me reconsider my plan. I started to give the animals more and more prominence as I arranged the scene. I put them closer and closer to the manger, putting them in the middle of the action, gazing at the wondrous sight. With each crèche, I strove to bring the viewers attention to the fact that the animals are also key players in this rather bizarre tale. I re-imagined the scene as many ways as I could. I call this year’s installation, “The Cattle are Lowing.”

It’s nice to recognize that even at age 35, the wonders of Christmas still abound.

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