An opera for Epiphany

By Marshall Scott

I sit at my computer, listening. I’m listening to an opera – one of two that have become annual rituals for me. One has become part of my reflections for Holy Week. One has become part of my preparation for Christmas. I sit at my computer, listening, and the tears start.

Have you seen a Child

the color of wheat, the color of dawn?

His eyes are mild.

His hands are those of a King,

as King he was born.

Incense, myrrh, and gold

we bring to His side.

and the Eastern Star is our guide.

I am listening, as is my custom, to “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” by Giancarlo Menotti. “Amahl,” an opera in one act, was a Christmas tradition when I was small. It was written for television, and was first broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1951. In the years since it has been performed in a variety of settings. Each year it is a part of my preparation for Christmas.

Have you seen a Child

the color of earth, the color of thorn?

His eyes are sad.

His hands are those of the poor,

as poor He was born.

Incense, myrrh, and gold

we bring to His side.

and the Eastern Star is our guide.

I suppose we should consider “Amahl” an Epiphany story, really, rather than a Christmas story; but perhaps that’s an artificial distinction. (There was that year, after all, when we didn’t take the crèche down until the Feast of the Presentation.) If you’re not familiar, it is the story of the encounter of Amahl, a poor and crippled shepherd boy, and his mother, with three kings and their one long-suffering attendant. The kings follow a star to seek a child. With them they bring rich gifts, including gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When the mother asks about the child they seek (hoping, really, it might be her own son), they sing about the Child.

The Child we seek holds the seas

and the winds on His palm.

The Child we seek has the moon

and the stars at His feet.

Before Him the eagle is gentle,

the lion is meek.

As a Christian, of course, I know the Child they seek. I trust they will see him. And yet I am moved powerfully by the images they present. This Child is born both king and poor, both gentle and sad. In his tiny palm he holds storms; indeed, the universe revolves around him, from the most distant to the most familiar.

Choirs of angels hover His roof

and sing Him to sleep.

He’s warmed by breath.

He’s fed by Mother

who is both Virgin and Queen.

Incense, myrrh, and gold

we bring to His side.

and the Eastern Star is our guide.

Again, if you know the work, you know that it does have its conflict. Amahl’s mother, oppressed and obsessed with their poverty, and anxious for Amahl’s welfare, is overcome. She tries to steal a little gold “for my child.” She is, of course, discovered and seized by the attendant. Crying, “Thief!” and fending off Amahl’s attempts at defense, he brings the woman roughly before the kings.

I know something about that. Oh, I know I don’t share that sort of poverty; I’m not that big a fool. At the same time, I remember, as I try to be Benedictine myself, that St. Benedict wrote, “The life of a monk ought always to be a Lenten observance.” Enough of my spiritual life has been affected by St. Benedict and by Walter Hilton that I have some idea just how I am impoverished. The fact that I haven’t stolen gold just like Amahl’s mother doesn’t allow me to pretend I haven’t stolen other things, less tangible perhaps but no less precious. I have often enough had to remember, from the Prayer of Manasseh, “I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned; and I know my wickedness only too well.”

I know, too, the embarrassment and the fear of being exposed. I have experienced my own interim times of judgment, just as I believe I will ultimately face the last judgment. And so as her character cringes on the floor, I cringe with her.

And with her, year after year, I sob, astounded, as a king sings,

Oh, woman, you can keep the gold.

The Child we seek doesn’t need our gold.

On love, on love alone

He will build His kingdom.

His pierced hand will hold no scepter.

His haloed head will wear no crown.

His might will not be built on your toil.

Swifter than lightning

He will soon walk among us.

He will bring us new life

and receive our death,

and the keys to His city

belong to the poor.

This is grace indeed. This is indeed the promise of new life, established in the child king. This is a hope so counter to the ways of this world: a king who walks among his people, who does not take his riches from the struggles of others, who builds his kingdom on love and not on power. How amazing, how confounding that these three kings have sought, and will find, this child king whose kingdom is so different from their own! And so, the mother sings through her tears, and I through mine,

On, no, wait…take back your gold!

For such a King I’ve waited all my life.

I will not tell you the rest of the story. I you’ll listen for yourself. And with twelve days in Christmas, and more in Epiphany, there is time.

Each year I journey again with a boy, his mother, and three kings. How wonderful the child they seek! How wonderful the child they will find! How wonderful to know the child they found, and to know that he transcends all their imaginings, and ours.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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