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Make Room for Mystery: O Magnum Mysterium

Updated: Apr 7, 2019

(The Word Proclaimed in Music)

Introduction by the Rev. Dr. Joanne Whitt

Lesson: Luke 3:1-6


The reading today is from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 3, verses 1 through 6. If you would like to follow along in your pew Bibles, the passage may be found on page 45 in the New Testament section.


1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”


I love that after listing seven of the powers that be of the time – not one, or two, or even three, but seven – Luke concludes with “the Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.” I love that, because, compared with the seven names mentioned just before, John is a nobody. And he’s in the wilderness – that in-between place of testing and waiting and danger where no sensible person wants to be found. So John is essentially a nobody who’s absolutely nowhere. Yet this is precisely where the Word of God went. Not Jerusalem, or Athens, or Rome, or any of the other centers of the culture and power, but rather to the margins. And maybe that’s often where the Word of God shows up – just where we’d least expect it.


While we include music as a regular and very important part of all of our worship, twice each year we acknowledge that music is a language through which the Word of God speaks to us. So that is not unexpected for us this morning. What might be unexpected is that, at least in my time here, we have not focused on music that so specifically points to the mysteries of the life of faith. This morning we have heard one version and will hear two more versions of “O Magnum Mysterium,” which means “O great mystery.” The mystery referenced in the title of these works is that God appeared not only as a tiny infant but, as tradition tells the story, in such a humble setting that farm animals were there to witness it. The translation of the Latin is in your bulletins. This description of the manger as a barnyard scene isn’t exactly biblical, but it is compelling. It speaks to the lengths God is willing to go to reach us, and of the love God has for all God’s creatures. It speaks of God appearing in unexpected places; it speaks of a mystery that transcends our intellect and our rational minds.


And so the music of all these versions of “O Magnum Mysterium” is ethereal, mysterious, evocative. The introit we already heard, with its varied tempos and textures and its poignant harmonies, is by Spanish composer Javier Busto Sagrado, from the Basque region of Spain. We are about to hear two more versions. The first is by Ola Yay-lo, a Norwegian composer. The alternate title for his “O Magnum Mysterium is “Serenity,” and you will hear why. The third is by American composer Morten Lauridsen, who has been described as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic.” After these contemporary pieces, the choir will close the service with a part of a version by a seventeenth century Spanish composer, Tomás Luis de Victoria. All these works are designed to point to the mystery of God appearing in unexpected places.


They are also designed to work in us or on us, the way prayer does, the way other spiritual practices do, to open up that part of us – is it our hearts? Our souls? Our spirits? Whatever you want to call it – to open up the part of us that can connect to the mystery, and feel the presence of the Holy.


So friends, this morning, in the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, while Jerry Brown is still governor of California, and John Wright is mayor of San Anselmo, while Bob Conover is executive Presbyter of Redwoods Presbytery and Joanne Whitt is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, make room for the mystery; make room for the Holy where you do not expect it. Even in yourself.

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