Friday, December 23, 2011

"Your redemption is near at hand": Remembering "Amahl and the Night Visitors"

The responsorial psalm for today reminds us, "Lift up your heads and see: your redemption is near at hand."  In a wonderful reflection over on PrayTell, Teresa Berger refers to December 23 as a liturgical "hinge day" as we transition from Advent preparations into Christmas realities.  On television, Christmas is being described in very generic, nondescript and unoffensive terms as a "time of peace, family, and gift-giving."  Nice enough, to be sure, but we could just as easily be speaking of any other solstice celebration.  To borrow from our Jewish heritage at Passover, "What makes tonight different from all other nights?" ought to be our question as we celebrate the entrance of the Christ into human history.  What difference should Christmas make?

I have shared before about the eight years I spent in Catholic seminary preparing for possible ordination to the priesthood.  These were the eight years of high school and college and, in those days, there were actually hundreds of Catholic high school seminaries around the country.  I graduated from the Salvatorian Seminary in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin in 1967.  During our junior year, the rector -- who was also our music teacher and director of the choir -- decided to stage Gian-Carlo Menotti's wonderful opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors."  We were not a large school, and since we were a seminary, there were no women or girls around to play Amahl's mother and the "shepherdesses" called for in the libretto!  So, Father Rector contacted a nearby convent/novitiate and we arranged to do a joint production.  One of our freshmen, Mike Hoffman (now Rev. Michael Hoffman, SDS), was a professionally trained singer who sang the lead role better than I have ever heard it done before or since.  I was the accompanist for the production, playing the 136-page score so often over the weeks of rehearsal and then production that I could "name that tune" in any two notes!

For those of you who do not know the story, it's quite simple.  Amahl is a crippled boy living with his widowed mother.  They are living in extreme poverty and the mother is resigned that they will soon have to become beggars in order to survive.  In the middle of the night, there is a knock on the door of their hut.  To their amazement, their visitors are the Three Kings on their way to find the Christ child, and the kings are seeking a place to rest on their journey.  After some wonderful music describing the child they are seeking (here's an audio clip from the original 1951 broadcast), and a warm welcome from the shepherds and shepherdesses living in the region, the kings and Amahl and his mother retire for the night.  In the darkness, Amahl's mother sings a beautiful aria about her own son, and then realizes what she could do for her son with just a little of gold that the kings are taking to the unknown Christ child.  (Here's the aria from the original 1951 broadcast with the remarkable Rosemary Kuhlmann.)  As she attempts to steal some of the gold, she is caught by the kings' page.  The kings tell her to keep the gold, that "the child we seek doesn't need our gold".  The mother returns the gold, however, and expresses her wish that she had something of value that she, too, could send to the child.  Amahl steps forward, saying that all he has to give is his crutch but that he would send that to the child, since, "who knows, he may need one too"!  In that act of generosity, the miracle takes place and Amahl the cripple is healed.  In thanksgiving, the mother permits Amahl to go with the kings to greet the Christ child in person.

Here's where I'm going with this.  Menotti wrote "Amahl" on a commission from NBC in 1951.  The network was seeking original programming, and in particular, they wanted a serious work to be broadcast as part of their Christmas schedule.  "Amahl" was broadcast live on Christmas Eve, 1951, and immediately became a Christmas staple for many years.  I read recently that every year it is now produced more than 500 times across the country.  I find this history stunning on many levels.  First, there was no apology by the commercial network (NBC) for having a specifically religiously-themed production aired; not only that, network executives intentionally and deliberately commissioned the work!  Second, this was a piece of classical music exquisitely performed live.  There was no attempt at a "dumbing down" of the material, and the immediate popularity of the music attests to its popular reception.  There were no cheap jokes, no scatological attempts at humor, no trivializing of the material.

I too fell in love with the music and the story.  Here is a modern re-telling of the impact the coming of Christ can have on very real people facing very real challenges in their very real lives.  This is not some kind of Christmas-lite, "feel-good", pseudo-religious piece of programming.  A single mother raising a handicapped child living in extreme poverty and about to go on the streets encounters a chance to steal some gold to turn their lives around.  Instead, through the love and the dreams of the kings and her own innate generosity and that of her son, a miracle takes place.  Their lives are changed, not because they now will have money to do whatever they want, but because the unseen Christ has come freely to them and affected the choices that they make.

Perhaps you have never heard of this opera these days.  Or, conversely, perhaps you've heard of it too much and consider merely a piece of Christmas fluff.  In any case, I offer it to you for your reconsideration.  Let yourself be swept away by some of the must beautiful music written (for example, the Mother's aria, or the quartet she sings with the kings as they ask "Have you seen a child?" and she describes Amahl to them).  We should then ask ourselves: How is the coming of Christ into my life being felt in very real, concrete ways in the lives of the people around me?

What miracles is the unseen Christ willing to work through us?  "Lift up your heads and see: your redemption is near at hand."


  1. As a child, I saw "Amahl" on TV and was appalled to find that it was an OPERA! I didn't even watch the whole thing. A couple years back, we took our youngest child with some of her friends to a performance at a theatre here in Atlanta, and I was pleased to see that the kids loved it. A hopeful sign that, however much our culture may have decayed in recent years, the youngest generation may actually be more cultured than their forebears?

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