Tonight at my church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal, the Christmas Eve Mass that begins at 11 p.m. will feature the Mass setting O magnum mysterium by Tomás Luis de Victoria. Our fellow Anglo-Catholics down at St. Mary the Virgin (“Smokey Mary’s”) in Times Square will have Victoria’s Missa Laetatus sum. And Traditionalist Roman Catholic blogger Fr. Z reports that the RC Church of the Holy Innocents on West 37th will hear Victoria’s Missa de Beata Maria!
I confess I have a special love for this Renaissance repertoire, and wish I could go to all three services. But whether a Midnight Mass features the compositions of Victoria, Haydn, or Richard Shephard, the music is a potent symbol of the underlying feast itself. Just as music touches the eternal by communicating thoughts too deep for human speech, this annual celebration proclaims the faith of Christian believers that a Word deeper than our words broke in upon human reality. Bill Buckley said about J. S. Bach that his music “disturbs human complacency because one can’t readily understand finiteness in its presence,” and that observation is true in an eminent way of Bach, mankind’s greatest composer. (In the same column, WFB quoted Carl Sagan quoting the biologist Lewis Thomas, when asked what message we should send aboard a spaceship to extraterrestrials, should any such be encountered: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach . . . but that would be boasting.”) Still, while Bach’s achievement is an outlier, even the works of much humbler musical figures point toward transcendence, toward a different order that coexists with — and irrupts into — the one we take for granted; an order beyond words.
Something to celebrate, even — perhaps especially? — in the bleak midwinter of our time and place, America, a.d. 2011.