Rituals and Change

December 24th, 2013

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Merry Christmas. The arrival of Christmas begins on the evening before the morning when most of us open the presents and say, “Merry Christmas.” In the Christian tradition, as with our Jewish forebears, the day begins at sunset. So Christmas has arrived and I’m pleased to say, “Merry Christmas.” The Christmas Eve service, as you now know to be misnamed, is a tradition for many of us, if not most of us. This is the season of traditions and family rituals, and that is what I’d like to reflect upon this evening.

The topic is in the forefront of my mind this year. In September we found out that my Mom has cancer. It was a surprise. It was found early, and she is moving beautifully through the stages of recovery. By all measures she will be cancer free in no time. And that is good news. But her illness changed the routine of the extended family this Christmas. That happens.  It’s OK. I am sure all of us here can track changes that have taken place in our Christmas rituals over the years: moves happen, illnesses occur, children grow up, marriages fall apart, people die – things change.

Christmas is a time when these changes are most acutely felt as they are highlighted by the rituals that change as a result. Rituals are built on relationships and all relationships change, save one.  At the heart of what we celebrate tonight is that unchangeable, unalterable relationship we have with God, made known in the person of Jesus.

I’d like to share with you a ritual our family had when I was growing up and what it taught me about hope.  Maybe it will give you cause to recall and share, this Christmas, a ritual you remember from your youth. Every Advent, with much fanfare, my Dad would announce that we were going to listen to Amahl and the Night Visitors. He would start talking about this at the beginning of Advent, but, given the complexity of our family schedule, we wouldn’t get to it until near the end of the season. We kids called it Appall and the Night Visitors, because we thought it was funny. So did my dad, but we still listened to it nonetheless.

We’d gather in the living room.  The Christmas tree lights would be on; there would be a fire in the fireplace.  My sister would crawl under the grand piano right up next to the speakers, I’d lie down under the tree, and my little brother would fall asleep in front of the fire. Dad would take the record out of its case and put it on the record player. He’d give me the album cover to look at. Some of you remember what that was like.

Amahl and the Night Visitors is an opera written by Gian (John) Carlo Menotti. It tells the story of three kings who stop at the home of a widow and her crippled son for respite as they travel East looking for a child born under a star. The mother and her son are desperately poor. The crippled boy has little prospects, and while his mother speaks disparagingly of him as a dreamer and fibber, she has squirreled away in a corner of her soul a hope that all mothers carry for their children. It is a hope she had hidden, even from herself, due to the circumstances of her life, but as she hears the story told by the three kings her heart loosens and her soul begins to fill with hope.

The kings tell of a star that has appeared in the East.  It matches a prophecy told of a child born to save the world, to bring peace; a child of pure light and radiant brightness.  Amahl’s mother asks,

“Perhaps I know this child.  What does he look like?”  It is a great question, but no one really knows what Jesus looks like, though we all have some idea of who he is in our minds. The kings do, and with this the first king begins, “his skin is the color of wheat, color of corn. His eyes are mild, and his hands are those of a king, as a king he was born.”  With this description hope begins to stir in Amahl’s mother’s soul. The second king steps up with his own vision of the child; he sings, “His skin is the color of earth, the color of mud, his eyes are sad, his hands are poor, for poor he was born.”  It is an inclusive image, and with these words Amahl’s mother’s hope gains strength. Then the third king with his vision of a cosmic Christ and sings, “The child we seek holds the seas and the winds in the palm of his hand, he carries the moon and the stars and the earth.  The eagle is gentle and the lion meek in his presence. For him, a choir of angels sings.”

Now all three kings are simultaneously singing their description of Jesus and what he means to them. As they do, we hear Amahl’s mother’s voice rise above their voices singing, “The child you speak of is my child, yet no one brings him incense or gold, he is the child that is hungry and cold, my son, my darling, my own…” The hope she has always held, the hope all parents hold for their child, has broken free and comes to full bloom.

As a kid laying under the Christmas tree, year in and year out, listening to this opera, I wondered about hope and what it looked like. I wondered how this mother could hold onto a hope for her child, in the face of real, objective hopelessness. And in her unreality I used to wait for temptation to spring upon her as the music in the opera moved Amahl’s mother across the floor. As it did I anticipated the crash of cymbals as she is caught red-handed trying to steal gold from the kings. “Thief, thief, thief,” the sentry cries. Chaos breaks out, as Amahl charges the guard beating him with one arm as he clings to his crutch with the other.

As a child, I identified with the impulse to protect my parents.  Tears would well up in my eyes, those tears that surface when a child goes to battle.  Now when I get to this point in the opera those tears return.  Those tears return not in response to a fighting child, but in response to a crippled child unable to save his mom from suffering. That is the power of ritual.  It stays the same as we change. Ritual is the backdrop against which our transformation plays out.

The chaos of this scene in Amahl and the Night Visitors slowly abates as the voice of one king sings, “Keep the gold. The child we seek does not need it.  He will not build his kingdom with gold or on the backs of human toil.  He will build his kingdom on love and this love will bring new life to all people. Keep the gold.”

Even as a kid I got it. There is something more valuable than gold and more powerful than kings. It is love, but it is more than love. It is a love given to us by God through grace. Love given in a way that we can understand, in a most regular way, through a person, born as a child, with enough hope for the whole world. God loves us that much.

Amahl’s mother feels this grace in an instant as the love of the infant king yet to be seen, unleashes a wave of hope bigger than the greatest hope she ever held for her child. That is what we seek in the ritual we celebrate tonight. We seek this greater hope, this deeper mystery, this foundation foothold, the really real, the truest truth that our hope is in a hope that is greater than the ebbs and flows of life. Amahl’s mother grasps this as she sings, “Take back the gold. I’ve waited all of my life for this king. I have waited all of my life for this moment to come. Take back your gold.  If I weren’t so poor I would send a gift as well.” To which Amahl comes forward, crutch in hand, “He can have my cane.  I made it myself. Who knows he may need it.” And with that Amahl takes his first steps. And his mother’s hope comes to life as a hope that follows her deeper hope in Jesus Christ.

My family doesn’t listen to Amahl and the Night Visitors. It is not a tradition I have maintained and that makes me a little sad. But rituals change. They come to life for a time to bring constancy against which we can be changed. That is the power of ritual. It stays the same so we can become more and more the person God created us to be. The rituals change as relationships ebb and flow, save one, the one we celebrate tonight.