Twenty Glances at the Infant Jesus
In 1944, during the darkest moments of the Second World War and after being released from a German Concentration Camp, the French composer, Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992), completed his most ambitious piece to date: a cycle of twenty intense piano pieces that spiral around the moment of the Incarnation. As we enter that mysterious space once again (what Meister Eckhart called the ‘now-moment’) I find myself returning each year to Messiaen’s mystical pieces. On first acquaintance they may seem a confusing and disparate collection of visions inspired by the Incarnation – but with continued listening, and some knowledge of his favourite authors such as St John of the Cross and Dom Columba Marmion, they begin to reveal their intensely beautiful symmetry and ecstasy.
The twenty titles are as follows:
1. Regard du Père ("The Glance of the Father")
2. Regard de l'étoile ("The Glance of the Star")
3. L'échange ("The exchange")
4. Regard de la Vierge ("The Glance of the Virgin")
5. Regard du Fils sur le Fils ("The Glance of the Son upon the Son")
6. Par Lui tout a été fait ("Through Him all things were made")
7. Regard de la Croix ("The Glance of the Cross")
8. Regard des hauteurs ("The Glance of the Heights")
9. Regard du temps ("The Glance of Time")
10.Regard de l'Esprit de joie ("The Glance of the Spirit of Joy")
11.Première communion de la Vierge ("The First Communion of the Virgin")
12.La parole toute-puissante ("The All-powerful Word")
14.Regard des Anges ("The Glance of the Angels")
15.Le baiser de l'Enfant-Jésus ("The Kiss of the Infant Jesus")
16.Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages ("The Glance of the Prophets, Shepherds and Magi")
17.Regard du silence ("The Glance of Silence")
18.Regard de l'Onction terrible ("The Glance of the Terrible Anointing")
19.Je dors, mais mon cœur veille ("I sleep, but my heart keeps watch")
20.Regard de l'Eglise d'amour ("The Glance of the Church of love")
Throughout all twenty (which take over two hours to perform – gruelling for performer and audience alike and perfect therefore for repeated listening at home in small sections) Messiaen reproduces and ‘riffs’ on repeated themes that go the heart of the Christmas mystery.
First there is the ‘theological’ framework of the Trinity contemplating itself: the Glance of the Father to the Son through the Holy Spirit (1,5,10) where the Son looks upon Himself in love. Here I am reminded of Erasmus’ translation of the first line of St John’s Gospel ( a translation my scripture scholar friends tell me is entirely appropriate): ‘In the beginning was the Conversation’. And out of this conversation all things are made. From this moment of self reflection within the Trinity arises...
The Second Thread – the Deity revealing itself through the cosmic forces of time, space and energy (2,6,8,9). Messiaen’s vision here seems to coincide with our recent ‘visions’ of the cosmos through our increasingly powerful telescopes: ‘huge expanses of space and duration, galaxies, photons, contrary spirals, inverted lightening’. We gaze in awe at the energies of time and space as the Conversation appears before us. It is indeed ‘all powerful’ (12), for the infant that lies before us so helpless will indeed come again ‘in all power’ to be our Judge.
Yet with the contemplation of the all-powerful comes the contemplation of humility, simplicity and innocence. The Conversation incarnates in a simple barn on a quiet night on the edge of the world. Life goes on regardless, as in a Brueghel painting, while the Almighty One chooses simplicity for its home. Messiaen chooses to depict the simplicity of the Incarnation through his delicate depictions of Maria (4,11,19) and here we find some of gentlest music (if you would like to hear one of these... which I think is the most beautiful of the cycle: ‘I sleep but my heart is awake’ go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VK8mMwCLyGk ). The Virgin ‘receives her first communion’ as the Child Jesus forms within her – a uniquely French contemplation that has all the simplicity and beauty of the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux who also influenced Messiaen at this point.
Whilst considering the thread of simplicity and the everyday that Messiaen brings to his depiction we cannot forget his favourite subjects – the birds. These sing, whistle and warble (larks, nightingales and blackbirds) in Glances 8, 11 and 14. I have noticed recently that on the nights leading up to Christmas and on Christmas night itself robins, and even last year thrushes, have sung throughout the night for the past few years. Whether this is due to global warming or birds overwintering here from a cold-locked Europe I cannot say. All I know is that each year when I return from Midnight Mass I step out into the garden and in the silence of the night a chorus of quiet song greets the Infant Jesus – Messiaen was right!
And as the infant is carolled by the birds so Messiaen then depicts the reception of the Incarnation on Christmas morning by all beings visible and invisible: shepherds, prophets, sages, angels and people (13, 14, 16). Full of astonishment and wonder, the Angels (‘thy servants are the flames of fire’) gather round the cradle. As St Hildegard of Bingen reminds us, the Angels are astonished by us for we bridge the realms of matter and spirit – something they cannot do. On their heels come the philosophers, theologians and wise ones trying to dispute the theological nature of Christ, and usually failing. Messiaen gives them a strange, odd dance with jumping rhythm (as Berlioz did in his ‘Enfance du Christ’), try as we like us theologians can never capture the supreme mystery of this moment...
Before he concludes the cycle with his Vision of the Eternal Church, Messiaen also weaves into his poem the whole point of the Incarnation: the Cross (3, 7, 18). The constant theme that stops Christmas becoming a schmaltz-fest. The agony of the suffering of Christ stops us over-sentimentalising the birth and Messiaen brings it back to the centre of the message of the Incarnation.
And then there is the Grand Finale – the Vision of the Eternal Church of Love (20) – that is – us. ‘After the showers of light in the night, the spirals of anguish, here are the bells, the glory and the kiss of love – the whole passion of arms around the Invisible’. As the Bride arises from her bedchamber we return to where we started in the embrace of the Almighty sanctified in this first Holy Communion. For this is indeed a night most truly blessed, more beautiful than the dawn when God becomes human so that, at long last, humanity may embrace the Divine...
I wish you all a very Happy and Peaceful Christmas as the Mystery unfolds itself before you over the next eight days and remember in particular all those who will today take the next step of the path from the visible to the invisible...