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“I can dance! I can jump! I can run! I can work! I can play!” so sings the ecstatic Amahl, the lame shepherd boy, in Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera for children of all ages, Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951).

Set in Bethlehem, a fiery star, “as big as a window,” lures Amahl into the December hills where he pipes his heart out, one melody after another. An impossible dreamer, he frequently frustrates his widowed mother, further impoverished by the recent sale of their sheep. Piercing cold, hunger, no fire in their hearth, only sleep’s oblivion keeps death at bay. However, from out of the night emerge Melchior, Kaspar, and Balthazar, kings/astrologers and their page, seeking lodging in this widow’s hovel. Stories of their star-quest for another king quicken Amahl. Like their visitors, he will bring a gift, his crutch, all that he owns. In that decision, his withered leg throbs with new wholeness. He stands tall. He will have a life. He sings.

What was it that compelled Amahl to disregard the need for his crutch, without which he remained immobile, this reckless heart-gesture that gave its all? What did he see in that moment? What empowerment that changed everything?

Unfortunately, many of us still hold on to crutches, of whatever stripe, to inch us through challenges, to enhance functioning, to conceal our human foibles from others and ourselves. What would it be like to stride free from such hobbling compulsions and enjoy the sun’s warmth on our backs?

Perhaps in 2019, we’ll find out. May it be a very Happy New Year for you and your loved ones!

 

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Imagine the terror of a ten-year-old boy suddenly facing the nozzle of a submachine gun held by an SS soldier, after having been slammed against the courtyard wall with its butt. It was Jo Joffo, waiting for his older brother on the Rue de Russie in Nazi-occupied Nice, France. It was summer, 1942. For over a month nasty inspectors interrogated him and his brother at the Excelsior Hotel until they were finally released. This experience ripped Jo Joffo from his childhood with its games of marbles and jacks, with ringing doorbells and other pranks.

This boy would later become a French author whose 1974 memoir A Bag of Marbles narrates this gripping flight to freedom, a hair-breath away from the enemy. So deep was the memoir’s appeal that it was translated into eighteen languages.

Such stories of survival still speak. From a safe distance, we observe and learn from others who have suffered heart-wrenching losses and survived murderous occupations of their countries. Yet, our times are not that different. Subtle forms of “occupation” still abound: social media, fake news, and addictive substances that manipulate attitudes, thoughts, and choices and keep spirits in bondage to Evil. Indeed, Jesus cautions us whenever we step outside our homes: “Be like sheep among wolves, cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)

The Plaza Frontenac Theater in St. Louis, Missouri, is currently showing the second film adaption of this memoir A Bag of Marbles; Christian Duguy directed it with English sub-titles.

Sections of empty seats in Powell Symphony Hall unnerved me. This was most unusual. On the program was the performance John Adams’s passion-opera-oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012); its libretto, a collage of Scriptural texts and selections from Dorothy Day, Hildegard of Bingham, and other poets, was composed by Peter Sellars.

Others felt the absence of the usual patrons for this Sunday matinee and buried themselves in the program notes. Like a voyeur, however, this emptiness pried into our concentration and stalked our preconception of what was coming. Never have I sat in such an audience.

All was ready: the St. Louis Symphony musicians and Chorus, two mezzo-sopranos, the tenor, and three countertenors awaited the baton of David Robertson. From the first notes came the primal engagement. Like it or not, we were to be swept into the passion-death-resurrection of Jesus and held hostage until its end.

Unlike other Passion oratorios, however, Jesus himself does not appear, nor His cross nor other images associated with His passion. As the libretto seeded our imaginations, everyone, onstage and off, became the Anointed One. Everyone suffered the dregs of intolerable darkness; were plummeted into that singular place of no return, alone and terrified; and nudged into ultimate trust of God, until released into Light. Enhancing this conversion experience were eerie sounds, from the musicians and principals, sounds turned inside out and prodding us into even deeper consciousness.

At the conclusion of the performance, even fewer patrons left Powell Hall for the parking lot, others having absented themselves at the intermission—Perhaps an allusion to “the grazers,” mentioned in Peter Sellars YouTube, A Fresh Passion.

Happy Easter to those daring to look afresh at this mystery!

 

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