The Seventh Day of Christmas: Morgenstern

At Eastertide or thereabouts, I posted a short piece on ‘Easter’ and related names, in which I mentioned (among other fussy and pedantic things) that the morning star is used in Old English poetry as a symbol of John the Baptist, heralding the sun (and Son) to come.

Of course (and this is a thing that some students of mythology can never get through their heads) every metaphor arises by the conscious decision of a human mind, and every decision could have gone some other way – and frequently does. Men change their minds all the time; it is the saving grace of our species, or rather, the principal element we contribute to our ability to be saved by grace. Those who seem to know most about it assure us that angels do not have the power to change their minds. Not having physical bodies, it would seem, they also lack the emotions, the changes of sensation, the circumstances that lead us to favour sometimes one, sometimes another of the alternatives available to us.

Whether there are any angels or not, this is an elegant bit of reasoning: as good a thought-experiment as anything about aliens in the hardest science fiction. In fact there was a good deal of science in some of the best mediaeval fiction. Peter Nicholls, in the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia, looks upon The Divine Comedy and calls a spade a spade: ‘it is sf in the strict sense, albeit the science is medieval.’ But I digress—

We humans, mortal and therefore changeable as we are, have a childlike fantasy and freedom that the angels can never know: we can not only invent metaphors, we can change them if we choose, as often as our clothes. If angels have metaphors, they grow them like limbs or noses and keep them thereafter, I suppose. So the morning star, which in one poetic tradition ‘was’ John the Baptist, in a closely related tradition ‘was’ Our Lord himself: as his earthly life and career was the bright forerunner of a far brighter dawn, the daybreak of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This delightful idea finds expression in the poetry of the early Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai, when he announces the birth of the Christ child in astronomical terms: ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ – How lovely shines the morning star. The composers of the day ran with the idea (and the verses), and are running still; the principal Bach did great things with it. But I find myself drawn to the musical setting by Michael Praetorius, which seems to me to express the sentiment of Nicolai’s metaphor with a simple and unencumbered joy. I hope you like it.


  1. Merry 7th Day of Christmas!

  2. Good old Praetorius! A staple of my high school Renaissance choir back in the day!

  3. And of course, in Eastern Orthodoxy it is the Blessed Virgin who is usually likened to the Morning Star:

    Rejoice! For through thee joy shall shine forth:
    Rejoice! For through thee the curse shall cease.
    Rejoice! Recalling of fallen Adam:
    Rejoice! Deliverance from the tears of Eve.
    Rejoice! Height hard to climb for the thoughts of men:
    Rejoice! Depth hard to scan even for the eyes of Angels.
    Rejoice! For thou art the throne of the King:
    Rejoice! For thou holdest Him Who upholds all.
    Rejoice! Star causing the Sun to shine:
    Rejoice! Womb of the Divine Incarnation.
    Rejoice! For through thee the creation is made new:
    Rejoice! For through thee the Creator becomes a newborn Child.
    Rejoice! O Unwedded Bride!

    • And all three versions of the metaphor make perfect sense. The linguist in me wants to launch into an entirely unnecessary screed about the underdetermination of symbols, but you will already know more about that than I do, and most of my 3.6 Loyal Readers would, I suspect, pay to be excused.

  4. Sherwood says

    Oh, an excellent Praetorius choice, reminding me that among the other million things I need to do, is get my record collection transferred to cd so I can listen to the blasted things.

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