The Power of Myth, the Power of Christmas: a timeless tale for turbulent times

December 2, 2022
Author: Henry Lebedinsky, Artist: Patricia Brintle

When Pacific MusicWorks’ artistic team decided to build a season around our upcoming April production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, we found ourselves drawn to the idea of how central storytelling is to the human artistic endeavor, and how both stories and the music they inspire can reach across the ages and traditions and speak to us all. Whether it’s the story of Orpheus and Eurydice or the story of Mary and Jesus, its power lies not in whether we ‘believe’ in it or not, but rather in its power to reach us, for us to see ourselves reflected within its telling, and, ultimately, what it can teach us about our own shared humanity.

The idea of myth has been generally degraded, in our modern parlance, to mean a widely accepted lie. What a shame. We are people made of stories, and for a story to attain mythic status, its power and resonance must be elevated to the point where it transcends time and place. Its truths are beyond Truth. The Christmas story has done just that, and its principal characters – a baby long-expected and his humble young mother – have entered the collective consciousness far beyond a small Middle Eastern town two thousand years ago.  The story has traveled the world by so many messengers, from hushed, clandestine retellings to beloved local community traditions to the pomp and circumstance of cathedral and court. Yet it seems to grow roots wherever it’s planted, infused with the richness of local traditions and flowering in beautiful and unexpected ways.

In today’s age of increased fragmentation and discord, the power of myth can bring us together. Whatever our backgrounds, whatever our circumstances, the truly great stories can teach and comfort all of us. They are, by nature, affirmations of our shared humanity, not our differences. If we are truly intentional with the words we use to tell the stories, they can teach us to remember and celebrate the past without idolizing it. They can help us embrace the future and the inevitability of change without fearing it. Most importantly, they can give us the language to acknowledge the mistakes of our past and the strength to face them and learn from them – if we choose to do so.

As the ideas for this year’s Christmas program began to coalesce in my mind, two central themes emerged. The first was trying to bring together beloved music and stories of Christmas across cultures and continents. We will be bringing you a world of music, from Corelli’s beloved ‘Christmas’ concerto and an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah to a villancico by one of our favorite newer discoveries, Cuba’s ‘18th Century Renaissance Man’ Esteban Salas y Castro. Add to that a colorful cantata from Baroque Bolivia and new arrangements of some truly beautiful Ukrainian carols. In this music, there are comforts and joys, tiny miracles and cosmic jubilation, all befitting a wonder of the union of heaven and earth, the human and the divine.

The second theme focuses on the story of Mary, mother of Jesus. I have long been fascinated with the body of poetry and music centered on this extraordinary woman whose heritage and history shaped the teachings of her son, and whose veneration and worship in cultures across the world has served to balance the heavy-handed patriarchy of many church traditions with an element of the strong Feminine Divine.

The Song of Mary, better known by the first word of its Latin text, Magnificat (from the Gospel of Luke 1:46-55) is the longest quotation attributed to a woman in the entire New Testament. Mary sings of revolution, of a world order turned on its head: the powerful cast down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. This vision of a world free from greed, viciousness, and abuse of power resonated with the Judaeans living under Rome’s yoke, and still speaks to the oppressed of the world two millennia later. This is not the voice of Mary, meek and mild, of so many Christmas carols and maudlin devotional artworks. This is a young woman who – despite the shackles of the patriarchy which reduced a woman pregnant out of wedlock into shameful, damaged property – echoed the centuries-old words of the Song of Hannah: “God raises the poor from the dust. And lifts the needy from heaps of human waste, to seat them with nobles and inherit a seat of honor.” (1 Samuel 2:8).

Woodcut by Benjamin Wildflower

But Mary’s story does not end there. The theme of Mary as protector and the feminine face of the Divine was a popular theme in the flowering of Latin American Christianity as well as in the European convent music traditions. The sheer number of Marian apparitions and their worship traditions, of which Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe is the most well known, speak to people’s innate spiritual need for the feminine in the face of the colonial church’s ubiquitous patriarchy. As scholars, performers, and appreciators of music from past generations, we must respectfully interpret and adapt our source material with one eye on historical practice and one ear in the modern world. In this sense, the French word for ‘translation’ – traduction –  literally ‘transduction’ or moving across a medium, is particularly apt here. By choosing to highlight a translation of the Magnificat adapted from womanist theologian the Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney instead of the exclusively male language derived from the King James Version, we have an opportunity to broaden and expand the power of the story, to bring into the picture the vibrant new and blossoming branches of our human family instead of pruning them into compliance. We are moving the story into a brighter, more inclusive future, not confining it with the shackles of the past.

My soul magnifies the Holy One,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For God has looked with favor
on the lowliness of their own womb-servant.
Surely, from now on all generations
  will call me blessed;   
For the Mighty One has done great things for me, 
  and holy is God’s Name.
God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
God has shown the strength of their own arm;
God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
  and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped their own child, Israel,
a memorial to God’s mercy, 
Just as God said to our ancestors,
to Hagar and Sarah and Abraham,
and their descendants forever.
Glory to the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Comfort and joy? More like protest music, heralding a world turning upside down. These are revolutionary words. How do we hear them today? Do we, like Mary, rejoice in the promise or, like King Herod, tremble with fear for what we have to lose?

The prophet Isaiah paints a vision of this promised world with images from nature: “The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will graze together, and a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6) and “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” (Isaiah 40:4). And when the promised Child is finally revealed, it is not kings or priests or nobles who have the prime seating for the concert of heavenly angels praising God and saying “Glory in the Highest Heaven…” Instead, that honor went to shepherds – the outsiders, the rough-sleepers, the essential workers without whom no king or priest would have a woolen robe to keep them warm in the cold of winter. The first messengers of Christmas were unhoused. The world was turning upside down.

And when he grew up, this was the story Jesus told over and over again during his years of ministry, that this new world was at hand – if we choose to build it. It was Mary’s story, Hannah’s story. A message that brought hope and inspired change for millennia, and continues to resonate today, if we choose to listen.

Example of a cantata: Tu, mi dios by Esteban Salas
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Pacific MusicWorks
Attn. Daniel Goodrich 999 Third Ave, Suite 4600 Seattle, WA 98104

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