Edited slightly from last year’s Epiphany post:
My favorite Epiphany story is Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act, one-hour, English opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Commissioned by network executives at NBC in 1950, Menotti wrote the opera with the inspiration of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “Adoration of the Magi” (shown here) and his own childhood memories in which the three kings–Melchior, Balthazar, and Kaspar–played much more important roles than did St. Nicholas.
Amahl is the story of a crippled shepherd boy, prone to telling tall tales, who lives in poverty and obscurity with his weary, embittered mother. When the magi stop by their home on a cold winter night, a delightful story unfolds — but one that is also poignant and profound. (I have a brief essay about Amahl in a 2009 issue of Homily Services. You can also find a plot synopsis here).
Tradition has it that one of the magi was African, and Menotti uses this to great effect in his opera. When the always-curious Amahl asks the black king Balthazar: “Have you regal blood?” and “may I see it?” The wise man responds: “It is just like yours.” For Menotti’s pre-civil rights era American audience, this was meant to say something important.
My favorite lines of the opera are the ones below. As many times as I’ve seen it performed and listened to my favorite recording of it (and that would be many, many, many times), these words never fail to move me. (Immediately before they are sung, Amahl’s mother — in her hopelessness and desperation — has tried to steal some of the kings’ gold).
As we celebrate Epiphany, these wise words from the three wise kings remind us that the Child they sought — that we seek — has built his kingdom “on love, on love alone.”
O Woman, you may 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.