A Sacred Opera

A Sacred Opera

The opening lines of the movie Amadeus highlighting the genius of Mozart and the divine gift of his compositions, begins with words of an aged Antonio Salieri, speaking from a place of despair and ridicule, and reflecting on the first time he heard the beginning notes of Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B flat major —

“On the page, it looked simple, nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse.

Bassoons, Basset Horns. Like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it. An Oboe. A single note hanging there unwavering, until a Clarinet took it over. Sweetened it into a phrase of such delight. This was no composition by a performing monkey, this was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, so unfulfillable. It seemed I was hearing the voice of God.”

The words in our gospel text today, like the notes of Mozart’s composition, may appear simple at first – a sweet story of unfulfilled yearning, offering and recognition, and it might seem easy to preach on one image, one phrase, one moment, and see it as the entirety of the truth to be revealed. Yet, as that one single, unwavering note of the oboe could never reveal the complexity of the voice of God, neither could one image, word, or phrase in our text today do so either. In the Serenade it is the interplay of the instruments, as the clarinet sweetens the oboe’s phrase into such delight, which creates beauty, light radiating out from that initial pulse of sound to speak the truth of God. In our gospel, it is the perfect balance of the four complementary and contrasting emotional voices of our actors, guided only by the Holy Spirit, which creates this compelling story about Simeon and Anna and Mary and Joseph and the Christ child but also about us and our story unfolding within it.

So, I invite you to play with me a bit as we create a sacred opera which will tell the story of our longing and fulfillment, of our obedience and associated cost, of the glory of Jesus’ light radiating into the darkness of our lives. This is the gift of this particular story, of this season of Epiphany. The scene opens in bright light: Mary, with Jesus swaddled upon her chest, and Joseph are in the busy outer courtyard of the Temple, buying two measly turtle doves – the only offering they could afford. Obedient to the law, they bring their first-born son to be redeemed, to be given to God. The chaotic treble notes of the animals’ braying join with the higher notes – the screeching of the turtle doves, and the abrupt and demanding voices of the money changers join in the scene like brash trumpets until… a crescendo, when light and music fade to nothing.

In near-total darkness, Joseph leads the way, tentatively, always within arm’s reach of Mary, ascending the stairs to the throne of the high priest, carrying the flimsy cage filled with their meager offering ,in their soul state of piety and righteousness. They enter the dark echoing temple of beautifully proportioned pillars and arches, to the sound of breathy and plaintive woodwinds…clarinets, bassoons, basset horns. A thin spotlight shines only on the holy family as they make their way into this vast and holy space. From an unseen place in the darkness, we hear Simeon. I imagine in a low baritone voice, rich and deep, steeped in wisdom and grace, and filled with an almost painful longing, singing for the consolation or comfort of Israel, release and liberation from the plight of Roman oppression. Simeon, old and weary, reminds God, again, pleading from his heart, of the promise God made that he should not see death before he sees salvation before him. He waits in utter darkness, like the Gentiles, in the holy but silent space, ready to die, but not yet fulfilled. From the opposite side of the stage, awash in low-light, we hear Anna perhaps in a contralto voice, singing her song of long-widowhood and a life of ecstatic love of God, made complete in her life of fasting, praying, day and night, making the Temple her home. We hear her adoring voice extol her surrender, floating – just hanging in the air – a soft adagio. Then something marvelous, almost miraculous, happens. Just like the clarinet picked up the oboe’s note and made a sweet story in that music, Simeon and Anna’s voices begin to blend, summarizing the states of their souls – obedient, faithful, pious, and aware of this prescient moment in the story of God’s salvation of our world. Revelation, insight, and prophecy join together as their voices unite.

This is the invitation for Simeon to come out of the darkness, led by the Holy Spirit, to watch the young couple ascend the area of the throne with their meager offerings, tears streaming down his withered face, and asks, “May I hold him?”. And then it begins: the climax of this story. The music fades away and Simeon’s voice breaks through in what we would call our liturgical lullaby: the Nunc Dimitis, the story of liberation of our souls, from all that binds us. Salvation has come into this world and has been seen. Anna comes out of the shadows to join them, just as the gospel writer Luke always brings the women out of the shadows to the forefront, to make their voices heard as a contribution to the story of our salvation. Light floods the stage, not from a spotlight this time, but from the baby Jesus. Rembrandt depicted this glory poignantly, with light radiating from the baby held in Simeon’s arms outward into the world, touching them, and all the world, with undeniable truth, overpowering their hearts, so they burst into song, all of their voices joining together in harmony, Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph, praising God, perhaps singing something from a time long ago, from Isaiah, “Arise, Shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. “Mary exits to the side of the stage, with her hands held fervently upon her heart, as she ponders Simeon’s prophecy that a sword will pierce her heart, and all of our hearts, that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed through the child she birthed, and yet not all will embrace the good news or the one who embodies it. Mary’s voice becomes the foundational note, the pulse we originally began this sacred opera with, steady, soulful, the one that pulls all the voices together, as she ponders this truth in her heart. That foundational note, which emanated from Mary’s heart, that pulls all voices or notes together in God’s musical score, the pulse which radiates through all creation, is found within each one of us. As Simeon held divinity in his own hands, we too hold divinity in our own hearts. The Light of Christ is revealed to us in our insights, creativity, and sparks of hopefulness, and draws us into Simeon’s prophecy, which is not just for Mary, but also for us – that a sword will pierce our hearts when we do as Mary did, open ourselves to and become obedient to – the love of God, to allow Christ’s Light to radiate from within us outward into our world. For we will find that the Light often causes trouble for us, awakening our consciousness, making us admit what we have been pretending not to know, about uncovering what is deep within, what is untouched, what we have pushed aside, banished into the corners of our souls – for now the Light will shine on it and we find we can’t let the truth go. There is a dire warning set within the holding of the Light. For it will change us. It will teach us the cost of discipleship. It reminds us that when promises of God are fulfilled, there will be challenges ahead. With obedience comes sorrow, for obeying God and listening from our hearts also involves personal sacrifice, and that is costly. If following Christ has not cost you anything, let’s talk sometime. For in allowing the Light to shine within our hearts, we will experience vulnerability, and that seems always to be rewarded not only with comfort but also with challenge. This is why in both our Rite I and Rite II Prayer C, we pray “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” It is true, we must soak up the comfort of the Light, but likewise we must welcome the purification that it brings, a cleansing of our inner clutter, of insecurity, lack of focus, and even self-deceitfulness.

Because the Christ presence in that little baby presented to the wise prophet and aged priest began the cleansing process of humankind. We must now live with integrity to the Light. For in receiving the Light, the light can only but shine in the areas of our darkness or that of our world, and we are then called to live differently, to allow the radiance to filter into and beyond our own life. Holding divinity within our hearts is a two-edge sword, as Mary found out. For if we hold within us God’s Word, made human in Jesus, and made ours within our hearts, the Word, the Light, will demand we walk with integrity. The Light will be like a refining fire, purifying and cleansing us until we, like Israel, can present an offering to the Lord of righteousness.

We all have our “Simeon moment” – our own epiphany, when our yearning meets fulfillment in God, when light floods our darkness or our unknowing and the Light pours upon us and radiates from within us, when Presence offers release and we are set free from any and all forms of oppression, and we find ourselves on center stage, aware of holding divinity in our arms, and we suddenly feel mute, no words, no notes release from our mouths. We are afraid to move, for fear of the unknown. We know the next note from our mouth will come with weight, decisiveness, and importance, just as Simeon and Anna’s voices projected light from the darkness, and we know it is our time to step out in faith. Become something new. Push away the anxiety that, as a rising tide, threatens to destroy the moment. To meet the challenge or the pain that may surface, that has been lurking in the dark corners of our souls. God always calls us to a larger life. As in the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s meditation on growth yesterday, to inhabit the larger life we are called toward, we have to let go of some of the outward forms that constrain our lives. The ones we’ve outgrown. Simeon’s prophecy that not all of us would embrace the Good News or the one who embodies it, is true for us as well. There will be some parts of us, or even those around us, who will not embrace the good news and will resist the release into the way God has called us to live.

It is not one word, phrase or image in our gospel story today that meets our hearts of yearning. It is not Mary’s pondering stance, or Joseph’s piety and obedience, or Anna’s “completeness found in her faith” or Simeon’s yearning that reveals the truth, just as it wasn’t the simple, profound, and singular note of the oboe which began the masterpiece of truth revealed in Mozart’s Serenade, that could reveal the complexity and revelation of the Light. It is when we join our voices, when we see salvation in the living of the Light, when we have been seized in and by the love of God, when we live in communion and with others that the light shines most brightly. Let us stand in the house of the Lord. Let us hold God’s son, made manifest in the bread and wine, in the love, peace, and healing shared among us, in the glorious and holy music offered to us, that we may be released to start on our way toward a better way of being, of living fully with integrity to who God has created us to be, as individuals and as a parish.

Let us pray to the all-powerful God, to the little baby Jesus himself, to the Christ, who was before, and is within, and beyond all time, and allow the light to shine in our darkness, and bring us into new life.

Amen.

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