If you haven’t heard it before, I commend it to you. Gian Carlo Menotti composed it for the first broadcast of the Hallmark Hall of Fame on NBC. It was first broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1951, and every Christmas Eve after until 1966. It is a memory from my childhood, before we had joined the Episcopal Church and I had discovered Midnight Mass. Wikipedia has a good synopsis, with the history of the production, here. I have written some earlier reflections on the opera here.
As I listened this morning, I was particularly struck at how timely the setting is for this opera. Amahl’s mother is in her own survival mode. She can see no value beyond the economic, whether in her son’s poetry or in her guests’ possessions. It isn’t because she’s unfeeling. She loves her son powerfully, and wants, with what little she has – another “widow’s mite” – she wants to show hospitality. She is enough of a known person in her community that those around her will turn out in the middle of the night to extend their hospitality with hers.
At the same time, she is defeated, or so nearly so as not to matter. She is ashamed to consider begging, however exciting it might seem to her son; but she sees no other option for his survival, much less her own.
And so she is driven to theft. She considers differences in class: “I wonder if rich people know what to do with their gold,” thinking not of great luxury, but of the simple pleasures now beyond her reach, beyond her hope. She considers a greater good to be done: “Oh, what I could do for my child with that gold!” She considers even whatever incipient relationship, even obligation, she might have with her guests: “Why should it all go to a child they don’t even know?” Finally, she gives in, not for herself but for her child; not for it all, but for just what she might need: “If I take some they’ll never miss it.”
Perhaps; but she is caught in the act. And when caught, her humiliation, and that of her son, are complete. She is seized, and her only defender is her crippled son, too weak to do more than appeal plaintively to the kings themselves.
It is then that she discovers mercy: for the kings know she and her son are more important than the gold itself:
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.
And in that moment, there is a miracle – indeed, there are two. We will all celebrate with the second, when Amahl can walk, blessed with healing in the moment of his own greatest generosity. But, neither do we want to miss the first: for it is indeed miraculous when his mother’s eyes are opened, her imagination expanded, and her hope renewed. Indeed, her miracle is not so different from his; for as his body his healed, so is her spirit. She can see possibilities again, possibilities that take her beyond herself, even beyond her son: “For such a king I’ve waited all my life. And if I weren’t so poor, I would send a gift of my own to such a child.”
We are surrounded these days with the same desperation Amahl’s mother felt. We see it of course in any Christmas, and will until we see the Kingdom in fullness: those who, beat down by their circumstances, unable to imagine alternatives, will steal. Some will be simply and solely greedy; but many, like Amahl’s mother, will be unable to bear the shame of what they cannot do for another, for children or spouse or those otherwise family. But this year I fear there will be so many more. The economic devastation around us, wrought in no small part by our own inability to see value beyond the economic, our own poverty of spirit, leaves many, and more than usual, literally with “nothing to eat, not a stick of wood for the fire, not a drop of oil in the jug.”
Give thanks for those who can say, to whatever extent and in whatever way, “Oh, woman, you can keep the gold [because] the Child we seek doesn’t need our gold.” Give thanks and praise when you can and I can say that, for when we do we open up possibilities for miracles. Cry aloud, “On love, on love alone will he build his kingdom… and the keys to his city belong to the poor.”
And pray, pray now and always, for those miracles, whether as visible as a dancing child, or as profound as a healed and opened heart. Pray that as our hearts are opened, so might theirs be; so that all of our eyes might be opened to the miracles wrought in the name of the Child.
Blessings for Christmas, and for all in this season of Light, from the Episcopal Chaplain.