(Originally published December 20, 2011, at www.bluevirginia.us)This is the second in a series of pieces on imaginative works that have become deeply woven into how Christmas is celebrated in American culture. These pieces connect with Christmas, and they connect with the moral heart of America. And moreover, the issues they raise are central to the crisis that we Americans now face in the political realm, and that are at the heart of my campaign for Congress.
A POOR SHEPHERD BOY AS MUCH AS A KING: ‘AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS’
This lovely opera is the story of a desperately poor little family –consisting of a young, crippled shepherd boy, Amahl, and his mother– who are visited one night by a trio of rich kings. These are the Three Kings, of course, following a star that is guiding them to the birthplace of a special kind of “King.” And they are bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts to the newborn child.
(Younger people may not know this little opera, but for Americans from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s –at which time the composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, withdrew permission— this opera was broadcast every year as part of the Christmas season.)
The meaning of this difference between wealth and status on one side, and poverty and obscurity on the other, is a central theme of the tale. At one point, Amahl is inquiring of one of the kings whether he has “regal blood.” The king tells him yes. Amahl asks to see it, and the king replies “It is just like yours.”
In a most beautiful trio, the Three Kings sing to the mother to explain the nature of the child they are traveling to see. In two successive stanzas, both the contrast between the high and the low and their unity are expressed: “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.” And then in the next stanza: “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.” At the pivotal moment of the story, the crippled Amahl is filled with excitement at the thought of giving something to this child, and he offers his crutch. As he does so, a miracle occurs: suddenly he does not need his crutch. He walks. He has been healed. This, sing the Kings, is “a sign from God.” With Amahl having been the recipient of this miracle, the status relationship has, in some sense, been reversed: “Oh blessed child, may I touch you?” ask the Kings of the boy. What does this have to do with Christmas? Although Kings are traveling to greet the birth of this child, his birth takes place in a manger. Not even in a home of the poor, but in the place where domesticated animals might give birth. This is the baby who will grow up to say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” As the Kings sing in the opera, “The keys to his city belong to the poor.” It is a vision of human value that is based not on status or power or wealth, but on the intrinsic worth of the human soul. It has been argued that the spiritual roots of the American democratic vision grow out of this vision of human value: we are not to be “subjects” of someone anointed by “divine right” to rule us, we are to be citizens with an equal claim to a voice in our collective destiny because, in the ultimate perspective, we have equal intrinsic value. In America today, that democratic vision is imperiled. Even as inequalities of wealth and power grow, there is a political force that works to widen that gulf still further. The idea of all citizens having equal say is being undermined by that force, working as it does to put the governmental process in effect up for auction. The agents of that force seem to care not about the plight of the least of their brethren. Far from having that generosity of spirit that leads a crippled boy to offer his crutch, they refuse to sacrifice anything to help the nation or to comfort the afflicted. It is in the face of this spirit – so at odds with the meaning of this season-that we Americans are now challenged to struggle to re-establish the eroded power of generosity and compassion in the arena where our destiny as a nation gets decided.