Songs of Angels, Animals, and Men

The great twentieth-century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, once opined: “though before the Throne of God the angels undoubtedly play Bach, among themselves they surely play Mozart.” Emboldened by Barth, I suggest that, though the Most High may favor Palestrina, the angels have a soft spot for Victoria.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), born in Avila, was active in Rome during the height of the Catholic Reformation. He knew and was influenced by Palestrina. To this lay listener, however, Victoria’s music seems at once more melodic and more affective than Palestrina’s chaste counterpoint. Among Victoria’s many motets, his setting of the responsory for Matins of Christmas Day stands out.

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum
natum jacentem in presepio. O Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare
Dominum Jesum Christum. Alleluia.

O awesome mystery and wondrous sacrament: that the animals behold the new-born Lord, lying in a manger. O Blessed Virgin, whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia.

I know no other piece of music that, in less than five minutes, manages to convey such a wondrous sense of awe and reverence culminating in fervent joy. Some years later Victoria composed a complete Mass based on motifs from the motet. The recording of motet and Mass by David Hill leading the Westminster Cathedral Choir is quite fine.

But, of late, it has led me to think more meditatively of those “animalia.” Our manger scenes traditionally feature at least an ox and a donkey; the more elaborate find space for shepherds with lambs and sheep. And at the appropriate time camels and kings make their required appearance. I own a simple yet lovely set from Bolivia that, fittingly, includes a llama.

These simple creatures mirror the Old Testament’s prophetic hope for the restoration of all creation at the Messiah’s coming. As we heard on the Second Sunday of this long Advent, Isaiah foresaw a Messianic age when the wolf will show hospitality to the lamb, calf and young lion will happily converse, and lion and ox sit down to an amicable supper – all emerging unscathed and refreshed!

In the time before that final consummation, the Christian contemplative gaze will espy anticipations and intimations. Tertullian recognized that “birds, when they awake, rise toward heaven and in place of hands lift their wings in the shape of the cross, chirping something that might seem to be a prayer.”


And the 18th-century poet, Christopher Smart, celebrated his cat Jeoffry who “at the first glance of the glory of God in the East worships God in his way.” The fact that Smart wrote these lines while confined in a home for the mentally unstable may well say more about his custodians than about him. Smart tellingly reminds his keepers that he stands “under the same accusation with my Saviour, for they said he is besides himself!”  Happily, if belatedly (Smart’s poem, “Rejoice in the Lamb,” was not discovered until 1939), Benjamin Britten has set it to music to moving effect.

But the Catholic imagination ranges well beyond beasts wild and tame, beyond humans, however “sane” (for we all stand in need of the Savior’s sanation). It breaks through secularity’s stifling “immanent frame” to catch the melody of angelic choirs whose singing glorifies the Lord. So, Luke recounts the angelic apparition to the shepherds announcing the Good News of the Savior’s birth. Not surprisingly, the angels cannot contain their joy and burst into song: “Glory to God in highest heaven; and on earth peace to men of good will!” (Lk 2:14)

Nor could one imagine for a moment Gabriel traveling all the way to Nazareth only to pronounce prosaically, “Hail, full of grace.” Clearly, he sang out (or at the very least chanted) the words, so musical in the original: “Chaire, kechairitōmene!” (Lk 1:28) And could he, though appearing in a dream, do any less for Joseph? Especially when intoning, with all reverence, the sweet name, “Jesus.” (Mt 1:21) After all, the revelation of the Savior’s Name is not a mere matter of fact, but a happening of stupendous joy.

And what shall we say of that wearisome journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem – eighty-some miles over four anxious days? How did they hasten the time and dispel fear? By singing, of course. The psalms undoubtedly. But also more recent compositions: Zechariah’s lilting “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel who has visited his people to set them free.” (Lk 1:68) And surely Mary hummed her own heartfelt “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” (Lk 1:46)

All these many voices, of angels, animals, women, and men, conspire together. Each one’s song but a sounding of that magnum mysterium that today’s gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent proclaims. “Emmanuel: God is with us!” (Mt 1:23) The voices harmonize, forming one exultant hymn both intimate and intense, scandalously particular and comprehensively Catholic.

In many a parish church, on Christmas Day, an intrepid choir will essay Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Often the sopranos will strain to reach the high notes, while basses struggle to plumb the depths. But they will all sing out lustily, knowing that theirs is but the earthly echo of the angelic choir. And that long before Handel imagined aurally the earthly tones, it was already being sung in heaven – in tune, and in perfect harmony.


*Image: An Angel Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds by Grovert Flinck, 1639 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]

Robert P. Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. His collected essays and reflections, some of which first appeared at The Catholic Thing, have recently been published as Christ Brings All Newness (Word on Fire Academic).