+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
You all probably know that Christmas is a twelve day season which concludes on the eve of the Epiphany, but when precisely does the season start? Sundown on the 24th? As soon as the liturgy of that evening starts? When you pop your Christmas crackers and light the pudding on fire? For some of us who love hymnody, there is a different, though admittedly highly subjective answer: The Chord. I’m referring here to the famous chord played in the last verse of Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Adeste Fidelis, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” For you musicologists out there it is a “B half-diminished seventh.” For those who aren’t musicologists, it’s that strange yet stirring sound, played at the word “Word.” (I’ve requested each organist I’ve ever had to make sure to pencil it into their hymnal, and Neil did yeoman’s work with it this year, unsurprisingly!) Some organists studiously (and perhaps a bit superstitiously) avoid using the chord at any moment during the year other than at the Christmas Eve mass.
I think it’s so popular because it’s so haunting and otherworldly. How appropriate that it is played over the word “Word”, for the divine Logos becoming flesh is a haunting and otherworldly event, that which is eternal–outside of history–invading our temporal, material universe. As an aside, I chose this Sunday’s bulletin cover image by my favorite modern artist, Joan Miró, because I think it does something in the visual medium that Sir David’s arrangement does in the musical medium. It baffles us and draws out an affective rather than intellectual response, and it might even disquiet us a bit. And it should, because we cannot completely integrate concepts like divinity and infinity into a purely rationalistic view of the created order. The same entering the created order is, thus, a shock to the system.
This isn’t to say we can’t say anything, at least analogically, about the relationship between the divine Word and the universe created and ordered by means of his eternal existence. This reading comes up every year, and I usually do try to say something about what a Christian metaphysics looks like. To merely say “it’s a mystery” is rather unsatisfying and dismissive, and it would surely lead to a failing grade on a systematic theology exam. But this year I want us simply to ponder this in our hearts, as our Lady did in response to the Annunciation when the Word of God actually became incarnate nine months prior to the Nativity. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the birth we must grapple with Christ’s eternal generation, his preëxistence from before time.
The church father and “hammer of the Arians,” St. Hilary of Poitiers, wrote “I will not endure to hear that Christ was born of Mary unless I also hear ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.’” You see, without this, what we heard on Christmas Eve was just a sweet story about a woman giving birth under less than ideal circumstances. When we acknowledge that this little baby is nothing less than the Lord of the Universe, that our very existence is contingent on his creative will, then what we’re talking about is the single most disruptive event in all of history.
So, today let us with gladness ponder this truth and all it means for us. He who made the world came into it as a child. The world which was made good and fell has been remade. Christ remains in his glorious, risen body, the first-fruits of all bodies which will be redeemed, and he comes to us still, his very body present on this altar. Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem, for today begins the work which is fulfilled on Calvary and in the empty tomb and which will find its consummation on that last great day when the trumpet shall sound and we shall all be raised incorruptible.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.