In a children’s opera about the Magi, titled Amahl and the Night Visitors, a poor widow and her crippled son hear a knock on the door. She says, Amahl! Go and see who’s knocking at the door. Taking his crutch, he hobbles to the door. Astonished, he hobbles back, saying: Mother… outside the door there is a King with a crown. Annoyed, she replies, Stop telling lies! Go back and see who it is.
Amahl looks again and says, Mother… I didn’t tell the truth before. There’s not a King outside. There are two kings! She warns him, Don’t you dare make up tales. Go back and see who it is.
Amahl looks a third time and says, Mother, Mother, Mother, come with me. There are not two Kings outside. There are three and one is black. She replies, What shall I do with this boy! I’ll go to the door myself.
When she opens the door Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar greet her in unison saying in deep male voices, Good evening! Good evening! Then Balthasar speaks for the three kings, May we rest a while in your house and warm ourselves by your fireplace? Astonished, she welcomes them and they reply in unison, Thank you, thank you. Oh, thank you!
The three kings show Amahl and his mother the gifts of gold, incense and myrrh for the Child they are seeking. That night when all seem asleep, the mother is tempted, All that gold! Oh, what I could do for my child with all that gold! She tries to take some but is caught. King Melchior says, Oh, woman, keep the gold. The Child we seek doesn’t need it. He builds his kingdom on love. Inspired, the boy says, Mother, let me send my crutch to the Child. Who knows, he may need it. At that moment Amahl is healed. At the sight of this miracle they all cry out, He walks, HE WALKS! As the opera ends Amahl leaves with the three kings to give thanks to the Child they are seeking.
This was the first opera ever composed for television. It was an immediate success, because who doesn’t love the Magi? The Psalmist, centuries before the birth of Christ, prophesied, “Before him kings shall fall prostrate, the kings of Tharsis and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute” (Psalm 72). Isaiah writes, “The wealth of nations shall come to you, they shall bring gold, and frankincense and proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Is 60:5-6). During the Muslim conquests around 650 AD the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was spared destruction because it has frescoes of the three kings dressed in Muslim regalia.
In the 8th century a text by St. Bede the Venerable gives names and descriptions to the three Magi. Johann Sebastian Bach composed cantatas for the Epiphany in the early 1700’s. And Hieronymus Bosch painted his famous work, The Adoration of the Magi in the fifteenth century. It inspired Gian Carlo Menotti to compose this children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, for television in 1951. Everyone loves the Magi.
In some parts of Europe chalk is used to write the first initial of their names over the doors of churches and homes, CMB: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These initials also stand for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, meaning, May Christ bless this home. In Italy the Epiphany is the favored day for giving gifts. In Belgium children dress up as the three wise men and go from door to door to sing songs and receive treats. In Ireland, today is called The Women’s Christmas because women get the day off while men do all the cooking and housework! But only once a year, mind you!
Why do we love the Magi? Because they give witness that this Child is greater than all the kings and wise men of this world, and like the Magi we are also seeking this Child, because as St. Augustine writes, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”