A Christmas Overture
Christmas oratorios, with their overtures, fill the naves of churches this time of the year. But there are two overtures more frequently heard than any other. I refer to the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke.
Experience with Mozart's operas gave me that insight. The Oxford Companion to Music states that Mozart, in his overtures, 'quotes in advance, some striking passages from the work to follow. Such allusions pull one's frame of mind into shape for the unfolding drama.' Like Mozart, Matthew and Luke also take the main themes of their gospels and weave them together in that magnificent overture we call the nativity story.
The purpose of the two nativity stories, like Mozart's overtures, is to serve as an introduction to the person and work of Jesus. For example, Matthew's story of the Holy Family becoming a pack-up-quick-and-get-out-of-town refugee family fleeing to, and then returning from, Egypt clearly portrays Jesus as a new Moses. That is why Matthew puts the Sermon on the Mount at the very beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Jesus, like Moses, teaches from the mount, and, like Moses, gives a new law: "It has been said of old you shall not kill, but I say unto you ...." If we explore Matthew further, we find that he has this new Moses--Jesus--leading us from slavery to freedom.
I am convinced that Mozart would recoil in horror if he were to come across the CDs containing only his overtures absent the main body of the operas themselves. I am similarly convinced that both Matthew and Luke would gasp in astonishment if they saw us focus so singularly on their nativity overtures and not immediately rush on to the adult Jesus to which the stories point. (In Zen Buddhist literature, there is the saying: the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.)
By literalizing the nativity stories, we turn into prosaic historical fact what was written with brilliant literary imagination. Then, by sentimentalizing the narrative into a romantic tale, we totally disregard the story's numerous darker themes and deeper message.
The early church certainly understood this. They chose to celebrate Christmas not in the spring, at lambing season when shepherds would be out with their sheep, but at the time of the winter solstice. This tells us that Christmas is much more than a birthday party.
The days get shorter and shorter, the dark nights get longer and longer. On December 25th, three days after the winter solstice--light and heat are slowly returning. Christmas happens at the darkest time of the year.
At that darkest moment, Jesus is born, and, with great faith, in
the midst of that darkness (and in the darkness of our own lives), the
message delivered is one of great joy to all people.
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