At the 11pm service on Christmas Eve, the choir will sing settings of two beloved Christmas texts: the Verbum caro factum est in a setting by Johann Walter, and the O magnum mysterium in a setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria.
Verbum caro factum est (“The Word was made flesh”) is taken directly from the Gospel for Christmas Day, St. John 1:14:
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, Whose glory we beheld as of the only-begotten of the Father.
This brilliant from St. John encapsulates the central mystery of this feast of the incarnation: the Word of God, that living and active Word by Which the heavens and the earth were made, was made into flesh, to pitch His tent among us poor sinners—and in that, God-made-flesh, we behold the full glory of the Father’s only-begotten Son. As the great Easter proclamation, the Exsultet, puts it: “O wondrous condescension of Thy lovingkindness towards us! O tenderness of love without all price, that to redeem the servant Thou didst deliver up Thy Son!” Johann Walter’s setting of this text is typical of Walter’s work: the text’s pre-existing chant melody is placed, unaltered, in the tenor voice, and the other three voices dance around it. Perhaps less typical of Walter’s work is the Affekt this piece produces: while Walter’s settings most often have an energetic drive about them, this setting is much more contemplative. It floats weightlessly as if it has all the time in the world to present its message. It is as if, in the music, we behold His glory eternally.
The O magnum mysterium is an extra-biblical text, a responsory from the second nocturn of Matins for Christmas:
O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord lying in a manger. O blessed is the virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia.
At first glance, this appears to be a text that Lutherans could not sing, for a few different reasons. Let’s address them one at a time:
The word “sacrament” (sacramentum) is defined by Lutherans today in a more narrow sense than that of the Apostles, or the Church fathers, or even the Lutherans of the Reformation. The Greek word we see rendered in the New Testament as “mystery” (μυστήριον, mysterion) was rendered in Jerome’s Latin Bible translation as sacramentum. For the Apostles and the early Church, “sacraments” and “mysteries” were one and the same—as they are for us as well, for who among us can explain the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, or how mere water “can do such great things?” These things are mysteries—sacraments—because they are connected with Christ’s command and because they give us what He promises: namely, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. And here is where the rubber meets the text, so to speak: Christ incarnate Himself fits that definition of a sacrament. He Himself deigned to come down to earth to be among us, and in Himself He gives us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Therefore it is a great and wondrous mystery and sacrament that filthy animals should see the very Son of God—the salvation of the world, the king of the universe—lying helpless in a feeding trough.
The subject of the virgin Mary has engendered much discussion amongst Lutherans throughout the last 500 years. Most certainly, we should not elevate the virgin Mary to the level of “co-redemptrix,” as is erroneously done by the Romans. Nevertheless, we confess along with the archangel Gabriel that Mary is “full of grace.” The Greek word used by St. Luke (1:28) is κεχαριτωµενη (kecharitōmĕnē), and it basically translates as “having the maximum possible amount of grace since forever.” It is used nowhere else, in any other Greek document, anywhere in the world: St. Luke literally had to invent this word to convey the meaning and significance of Gabriel’s message. Whatever we might read into this remarkable word (and there is much that can be read in erroneously, including the Roman dogma of the immaculate conception), we cannot argue against the facts that Gabriel said it (though presumably in Aramaic so Mary could understand), and that St. Luke wrote it under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit that conceived the Word of God in Mary’s womb. Therefore, to confess, along with the O magnum mysterium, that Mary is indeed “blessed” is no mistake.
Even more controversial might be the word “worthy” (meruerunt). From this Latin word we get the verb “to merit.” Indeed, here also we may fall into error, insinuating that Mary somehow merited the honor of being the mother of our Lord. While there is no other way to honestly translate meruerunt, it must be placed in the context of salvation history. For we know from St. Paul (Rom. 3:23) that “all have sinned” and (Rom. 3:10, quoting Eccl. 7:20) that “none is righteous, no, not one,” and this certainly includes Mary. We also know from Mary herself that her worthiness is because of Christ, because she confesses just as much later in Luke 1:47–49. In fact, these verses answer all our questions for us:
[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He Who is mighty has done great things for me.
In these verses Mary confesses God to be her Savior, that she is of low degree, that God Himself has magnified her from that low degree (the ESV does a particularly depressing job with this passage, using the pedantic “He… has done great things for me” instead of the more picturesque and appropriate “magnified”), and that on account of all this, all generations henceforth will refer to her as “blessed.” And indeed, is it not exactly that way? Mary was truly worthy to bear God’s Son, because God Himself caused her to be worthy.