On 2 Christmas < Epiphany, 1/5/2020

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from the Rev. Clarence E. Butler
St. James Episcopal, Somerville

I would not insult you this morning by asking even the rhetorical question, whether you have heard or heard of the magnificent, masterwork of George Frederick Handel “Messiah.”  Of course, you have.  It would be nigh impossible to live in our culture and not have heard “Messiah” in its entirety, or in part.  Perhaps best known and immediately recognizable is, of course, his “Hallelujah Chorus.”  There are other equally moving choruses or arias, at least to me, in that work, such as “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,” “And he shall purify the sons of Levi,” “All we like sheep have gone astray,” “For unto us a child is born,” or “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”  One does not have to be a professional musician in order to appreciate the genius of Handel at work.  And by the way, he wrote other works, which are operas, but because of the scriptural foundation of “The Messiah,” it is this work that captures our imagination, our ear, during Advent and Christmas.

I will, however, venture to say with 99.99% certainty that it is unlikely that you have come across the name Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian American.  He, too, wrote an opera, ca. 55 minutes in length, one-third the length of Handel “Messiah.”  And rightly you may ask me: And who is this Gian Carlo Menotti, why should I know him, and what did opera did he write that you should favor him in a homily with an honorable mention?  My response is: Tomorrow is recognized in our liturgy at the Feast of the Epiphany.  And I understand that in Hispanic Culture, this feast vies with Christmas itself for importance.  The Feast of the Epiphany is one of the many which we observe during the season of Christmas.

However, the Feast of the Epiphany is important to us, not direct descendants of Abraham and Sarah, for that feast opens the door of Christ’s birth to all people.  The Three Kings, or three Wisemen, were not Israelites, but of other nations.  They came from the East to pay homage to the new king of Israel, and in so doing announced God’s promise that the Messiah shall be for all people.

Gian Carlo Menotti wrote 1951 a one-act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which was premiered 24 December 1951 on NBC TV, a work commissioned by NBC for children.  Years later, when I, a junior in high school and a member of the school’s concert choir, as student conductor to our nationally acclaimed director, I had the privilege to serve backstage as student director of this opera.  A major chorus of the opera is sung out of sight of the director who stood in the pit of the orchestra, who had to rely on me to maintain his beat, sight unseen.  But that is of little or no importance.  What is important is the story that Menotti has put to music.

The libretto or story is a simple one, something that only enhances the beauty and value of it all.  Hoping that you will want to know more about this work of art, I beg your indulgence as I offer to you a brief synopsis, for I hope in the telling, it will become obvious why Menotti’s 58 minute long opera sheds perhaps a new light on the value of the Epiphany.  The Three Kings, journeying long, arrive at night in a village not too far removed from Bethlehem where the Christ Child has been born, but cannot go further.  They come upon a lean-to, a shed where a widowed woman and her crippled young son eke out a daily subsistence.  The boy, Amahl, works among the shepherds on the hillside and has turned beggar.  The Three Kings, far from their palatial dwellings, ask and receive accommodation and proceed to tell the boy and his mother of their mission.  They carry with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all valuable items, fitting their status and that as an offering to another king.

While the Three Kings sleep, Amahl, knowing of the value of the gifts and what he could get for them on the black market, sneaks into the area where the kings are sleeping and attempts to steal the gold from the one king.  The king awakes, catches Amahl, and the commotion alerts his other two companions.  Much like Joseph, who did not want to start a row because of his discovery of Mary’s pregnancy prior to their actual marriage, neither did the kings want to cause greater harm than the boy and his widowed mother had already experienced and would surely experience in greater measure, if brought before justice.  They tell the boy in greater detail of their mission, and Amahl, so moved, offers his crutch to the kings, to take along as a gift to this wonder-bringing child.  Because of his unselfish act, Amahl is miraculously cured and is offered the opportunity to go with the Three Kings, in order to see that thing which had come to pass.  Amahl begs his mother, whose final admonishing words are to behave and follow the instructions of the kings, who have given her funds which will see her and her son, upon his return, to the end of their days.

When Menotti composed his work for NBC TV, it was, as mentioned, aimed at children.  In part, it was to teach children through art, that honesty has an intrinsic value and that even they as children can offer gifts to the Christ Child, and not long solely for presents for themselves.  Menotti’s one act opera was commissioned also as a counterpart to the more secular “Twas the night before Christmas,” the poem written 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore in NYC.

I would never, ever want to be viewed or understood as someone who turns his back on Clement Moore’s poem which I heard also as a child.  Nor want it said of me that I reject the grandeur, the absolute beauty of Handel’s “Messiah.”  Handel’s work is without parallel, acclaimed even by those who are not Christian or particularly religious.  Nevertheless, Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” holds its own.  They all complement each other.  That said, for me “Amahl and the Night Visitors” captures in artistic form where most humans, myself included, find themselves, namely in the middle of living, of providing for ourselves and those whom we love.  Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” inject a dose of realism in our understanding of the birth of Christ.

Daily life leaves very little time for reflections on the creation in which we serve as stewards.  To be presented in a more realistic setting that the Three Kings, or Wise Men if you will, surely on their way to pay their royal respect and adoration to another royal, encountered ordinary people who offered them accommodation and, in so doing, involved those ordinary people in learning about God’s inclusivity—that for me is a teachable moment, that everything and everyone are sacred and valuable in the eyes of God, that every one of us has a role to play in forming community and in making, Handel’s “King of kings and Lord of lords” real in our lives.

On this Sunday, given over to following the Christ Child and his parents into exile, and on the Eve of the Epiphany or the Feast of the Three Kings, I am moved to think of the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, which we know as the “Our Father,” and which we will recite later in our liturgy.  No matter how often I say this prayer, I am moved by the earthy nature of its simplicity, the same earthy nature which the journey and gifts of the Three Kings bring to our religious belief.  Pray, good people, that we never forget its opening line, the line which literally grounds us:  “Hallowed be thy Name; thy kingdom come on Earth.”  It is on earth that we discover God.