The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7) [NRSV]
My favorite Christmas Story is probably Gian Carlo Menotti's little opera for children, Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was televised during my childhood, and my father once took my brother and me to a live production at the Cincinnati Symphony, when we were about nine and seven. That didn't work out so well, as my brother turned out to have intestinal flu and threw up in the middle, necessitating a return home, but I spent the rest of that December listening to the record and memorizing the score. I used to sing Amahl to myself, in my pathetically tuneless voice, as I wandered the sandy paths of a cottage resort in Florida the next spring, awaiting my father's return from his second wedding. Something about that Christmas miracle was sustaining to a child whose life was going to change yet again.
When I had children of my own, I introduced them to Amahl via a grainy VCR recording; today they, too, know at least bits and pieces of the music. And we did make it through an entire beautifully staged production a couple of years ago. Every Christmas I set aside a portion of an evening to sit in my quiet and candle-lit home and listen to the CD.
The operetta turns on the story of the Three Kings, journeying across a barren land in search of the meaning of a star. At its heart are the Amahl and his mother, living in isolation and need. He is cheerfully oblivious to the poverty that has taken from them sheep, goat, and food; she is increasingly irritated by his propensity for amusing himself with fantastical stories. She furiously sends him to bed after he has stayed out too late playing his flute, only to come inside with some of his biggest lies ever, about a star "as big as a window [that] moves across the sky like a chariot on fire."
Into the rest of the short production are packed the arrival of the kings (whom the mother at first believes to be another figment of her son's imagination); Amahl's humorous interactions with them; the musical and dancing entertainment provided by the local shepherds; the mother's longing looks at the visitors' display of wealth, which prompt one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of Christmas music in existence; her desperation for her son's circumstances; the revelation of the true character of the new king; and Amahl's innocent generosity, which leads to the first miracle of Christmas.
It's a simple enough story, full of whimsy, sorrow, and triumph. Overarchingly present are the great lights -- the light of the star which entrances a young child, puzzles his mother, and exerts a powerful pull on the three strangers, -- and the greater light to which it points. It is a children's opera, but it presents in an hour the entire sweep of Isaiah 9:2-7 as played out by the curious cast of characters who assemble in our imaginations each December.
"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.
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."