I was about eight years old and in short trousers when our school music teacher, Miss Waites, who seemed to us then to be about one hundred, decided to try us out on opera. That autumn term, every Friday afternoon when grammar was over, we sat down to listen to it scene by scene on a scratchy LP. We memorised words, we learned tunes, we acted scenes, we drew pictures with wax crayons. It was quite an education. The opera was by Gian Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
It's about a crippled shepherd boy who lives in a remote hovel with his mother. One night, while he is playing his pipe under the desert sky, he sees a star like no star he's ever seen before. A little later, he hears the sound of travellers chanting as they cross the hillside. Then there's a knock at the door. It's the magi on their way to find the Child. They do not know him, but will recognise him when they find him. They bring gifts for him: gold, frankincense, myrrh. They need shelter for the night. Hospitality is a sacred duty in the near east, so they are invited in. A celebration is called for, so the village throws a great party. Then, while everyone is asleep, Amahl's mother tries to steal the gold: just a little - surely the unknown Child won't need it all; think what she could do with it for Amahl. She is caught by the watchful page, and is shamed. But the kings tell her to keep the gold, for the Child's kingdom is built not on riches but on love alone. It's time for them to leave. Amahl wants to send a gift of his own. What better than his crutch - the Child might be a cripple like him. He hands it over... and finds he can walk without it. It's a sign from the Holy Child. Amahl knows he must visit him too and take his gift in person. So they set out following the star that will lead them to the infant King.
It's a charming opera. Here are three insights from this folk-tale to ponder at Epiphany.
First: the incarnation is about the wonderful possibility of change and renewal. It is the new creation, whose words ‘let there be light' transform the people who walked in darkness. The cripple becomes a new person, ready to make his own journey. His possessive, fearful mother can let him go without regret so that he can thank the Child. The kings learn that you don't have to be royal to be rich, for they see how God has honoured this poorest of households with a miracle. Indeed, they have found the Child already, for he has been with them all along. We have seen his glory, says St. John, full of grace and truth. Each year, Christmas ought to change us, help us recapture our vision, reawaken hope. So a good question for Epiphany is, how this latest Christmas in our life touched us, opened up in us a new awareness, some fresh vision of grace and truth, recalled the privilege of being those whom Jesus calls his friends?
Secoondly: Christmas is about childlikeness, becoming genuinely open-handed and humble enough to receive what another has to give. Perhaps the magi saw in Amahl's house
that to welcome the Infant Christ, we must learn to receive before we can give. For them this meant stooping low enough to seek shelter from the poor, as low as you have to bend down when you visit the shrine of the nativity in Bethlehem. For the miracle happened not to the great and powerful, but to a crippled boy with nothing to offer but his crutches and a heart full of love. Jesus said that unless we become like little children, we can never enter the kingdom of God. If we take Christmas seriously, we see wealth and power in new ways. To be rich before God is to have nothing in our hands; like the Christ Child to be little, weak and helpless is to know the infinite power of love. And this is all we have to come with: our worship, our longing, our love. Yet it is enough for us to begin to be bearers of hope in our broken world.
Truth number three: Christmas is about a journey we must all make for ourselves. Whoever we are: prince or pauper, powerful or weak, young or old, the star is there for us to follow. Once we have seen it, we can't not follow it - can't ignore it or tell it to go away. Well, we can stay where we are, clinging on to old goods and old gods; but what does that profit if it means losing your own soul? But to make the journey, fling away the crutches that symbolise the past, venture with God towards new horizons where Jesus is going to be - this is what Epiphany means. It's a risk, for faith leads us we know not where and towards horizons we cannot even glimpse when we set out. It calls for courage in a society perplexed by what religion is for, puzzled and even alienated by what Jesus Christ could possibly mean in a world such as this. We are singing the Lord's song in a strange land. But sing it we must, and gladly.
Amahl is profound in its simplicity because it captures the profound simplicity of the gospel. I can still recall watching the opera performed as an eight-year old, and being filled with a sense of expectancy and happiness. Looking back, I now recognise what I needed to learn: about myself, about human life, about what it means to receive and give, about where true happiness lies. I am grateful for those early glimpses. Epiphany is not the end of Christmas but its enlargement that puts the incarnation into its greater context. For the great light the shepherds and magi saw and the angels sang is for all people of all places and times, for all that lives and breathes, for all that is. It's for us, this revealing of God's glory where the light shines in the darkness and the darkness is not able to overcome it. During these forty days of the Christmas festival, we continue to pray that our joy at the birth of Jesus will last for ever, that its lambent glow will melt the snows of spirits long frozen over, warm cold hearts, re-awaken our love for this Infant and our resolve to place him at the heart of all that awaits us as we journey through another year.
Durham Cathedral, January 2010