[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Sunday, December 31.]
The coming of God in human flesh is the central event in human history. After the Word became flesh, all of creation appeared changed to those who encountered Jesus Christ risen and glorified. Christ’s sacred humanity became the key that reinterpreted all of the Scriptures and indeed unlocks the mystery of the human person and human destiny: to be divinized by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Incarnation has had a way of scandalizing those who feel that it is beneath God’s majesty to inhabit the ordinariness and weakness of the human state. Early ‘gnostic’ movements in the Church’s history invented a variety of ways of protecting God from His own rashness, it would seem. In this milieu, the Church discovered that the virgin birth by Mary, the Mother of God was a central guarantee of the mystery of the Incarnation. Christ took flesh from the Blessed Virgin while retaining His divinity, as shown by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
As the Church re-read the sacred Scriptures of Israel to understand more profoundly the mystery of Christ, she also began to discover a multitude of allusions to the mystery of His conception and to the sanctity of His Mother. The antiphons (the short texts at the beginning and end of each Psalm) of today’s solemnity assist us in reinterpreting the Psalms according to their Christology and excavating for us hidden meanings of the Old Testament. The mysterious fleece of Gideon (see Judges, chapter six) was covered with heavenly dew while all the ground around it remained dry and barren. This descent of the dew portended the Lord’s triumph in battle and salvation for Israel. The bramble bush that drew the attention of Moses burned with heavenly flame but was not consumed. And from it, he heard God’s Word, the Son, according to the Fathers of the Church. Mary received the fullness of deity in her womb without losing her virginity, nor being consumed by God’s powerful presence. And the Word that was her only Son was to lead all peoples, not through the Red Sea, but through death itself. He did this by taking our sins upon Himself, becoming the Lamb of God, attested to by John the Baptist.
The length and density of the traditional antiphons attached to today’s solemnity are unusual. Most antiphons quote or directly paraphrase Biblical texts. The theological content of these ‘mystical’ antiphons is surely related to Mary’s status as the ‘vanquisher of all heresies’, the guarantor, as explained above, of the orthodox interpretation of the Incarnation.
Even more unusual is Josquin’s decision to do a full setting of the antiphons of this one liturgical day. Aside from his numerous Mass settings, Josquin set almost no fully liturgical music (in contrast to the paraliturgical devotional works for which he is justly renowned). Musical settings of Mass Ordinaries (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc.) have the advantage of being usable on almost any day of the year, whereas the ‘proper’ antiphons for today’s solemnity can only be performed on this one day of the year—at least if one wishes to honor the traditional placement of liturgical texts.
In Josquin’s day, the Roman liturgy celebrated the Circumcision of Christ on January 1, but this was a relatively recent observance, especially at Rome. And even when the Circumcision was adopted in the universal Church, it retained the more ancient association with the motherhood of Mary. Surely part of Josquin’s decision to set these texts is motivated by his own well-attested Marian devotion and the growing popularity of such devotion (especially in the use of the rosary) in his day. Even so, it is striking that he chose to set the texts of this solemnity rather than other devotional poems, which were numerous in his day.
The richness of this evening’s liturgy admirably brings 2017 to a close and reminds us of the fecundity of the mystery of our Faith. May the New Year be blessed by the Lord, the Lord of history and King of the nations!