Some songs are so powerful that no matter what language they are sung in the audience connects deeply with them despite not understanding the lyrics at all. The first time I recognized this was on the night before the 1990 World Cup Final. I was nine a half years old that summer and loved playing soccer as a member of the Brentwood Stingers.
I watched as many World Cup games as I could. I was also equally interested in music. I loved music of all types, but for some reason classical music had always found a special place with me. Maybe it was the grandness of the orchestra and the tuxedos that made me pay attention. Maybe it was the way the conductor could command so many people to play their instruments as loudly and quietly as possible.
But I think from a very early age I understood that music, even music without words, could evoke deep emotions. During this advent season I have had a few people ask why I lean so heavily into music for my writing and part of that reason is that Christmas has become almost impossible to talk about without the music that accompanies the season.
The biggest reason is that music has always been the way I have found the words to express my emotions. As far back as I can remember it has been music that has helped me to process the thoughts and emotions that I tend to keep locked away from the world. It was on the occasion of the Three Tenors concert as a nine and half year old that I first made the connection between music and my inner emotional life.
Read – 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, John 8:12
We return to the “Love Chapter” in Corinthians and specifically to the words that Paul writes about what the love of Christ looks like in practice. Again, these verses are so popular at weddings because the love of Christ is exactly the kind of love that spouses should aspire to in a marriage.
A love that is patient and kind. A love that does not envy or boast. A love that does not dishonor others and is not self-seeking. A love that is not easily angered and does not keep any record of wrongs. A love that does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. We want a love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.
And that last verse is where just about all wedding readings stop. At our wedding, however, I asked to make sure that the first sentence in the 8th verse was included: Love never fails. I had a very specific reason for including it in our wedding vows. It was a nod to the reality that our love would eventually fail. Eventually each of us would find ourselves boasting or being envious. Eventually we would both find ourselves seeking our own agenda first.
What I wanted in including that sentence was to remind us that the love of Christ never fails. That love was demonstrated first by God as John wrote in the most famous Bible verse of all; John 3:16
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.
And later demonstrated by Jesus as he sacrificed his own life for us.
In the third act of the Opera Turandot we find one of the most famous tenor arias of all time. It is a song that just about everyone has heard, even if you have never seen an opera. The song is “Nessun Dorma” and the most famous singer of that aria is Luciano Pavarotti and he performed that song during the Three Tenors Concert the night before the 1990 World Cup. Over 800 million people watched that concert, including me.
The entire concert was a feast for my little eyes and ears as these larger than life men poured their talents out over an enormous orchestra and choir. I remember how I felt as I saw these men sing in a language I had never heard, but clearly understanding the emotion of the music. It was the first, but certainly not the last time I would hear “Nessun Dorma”.
I won’t recap the entire Opera here. You need just a brief background to understand what is happening. An unknown prince solved three riddles as the test to win the hand of a princess in marriage. She did not want to marry him and he agreed that if she could guess his name by the next morning that she not only did not have to marry him, but that she could kill him as well.
The Unknown Prince’s name is Calàf, and he finds himself alone in the garden in the middle of the night as he hears the people of the town spreading the news that no one in the kingdom is allowed to sleep until his name is known.
Calàf sings (translation from wikipedia):
Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o Principessa,
nella tua fredda stanza,
guardi le stelle
che tremano d’amore, e di speranza!
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Not even you, oh Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
watching the stars
that tremble with love, and with hope!
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me;
il nome mio nessun saprà!
No, No! Sulla tua bocca,
lo dirò quando la luce splenderà!
But my secret is hidden within me;
no one will know my name!
No, no! On your mouth,
I will say it when the light shines!
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà
il silenzio che ti fa mia!
And my kiss will dissolve
the silence that makes you mine!
Just before the climactic end of the aria, a chorus of women is heard singing in the distance:
Il nome suo nessun saprà,
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!
No one will know his name,
and we will have to, alas, die, die!
Calàf, now certain of victory, sings:
Dilegua, o notte!
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!
Every so often a song comes along that inadvertently reminds me in both word and orchestration of the magnitude of God’s love. Nessun Dorma is one of those songs for me, specifically those last few lines when Calàf is assured of victory. Turandot is not a Biblical allegory and there are many problems with the love story that unfolds. Ignore all of that for our purposes.
What I want you to see is how those last few lines line up with Jesus’ own words. In the verse of John’s Gospel that we read today Jesus states: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
And with our knowledge of what Love Paul was really talking about in his letter to the Corinthians in verse 8a where he states that “Love never fails”, it might as well read “Jesus Wins.” In fact Jesus himself told the disciples in many different ways that he would be killed and rise again in three days. Peter at one point later in the eights chapter of Mark pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him for saying those things.
Jesus response is, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s purposes, but on man’s.” He might as well have said, “Peter, I will win!”
This is this love that we celebrate this Christmas season, the love that God showed in sending his only Son to be born. The love of a Savior that chose to come to Earth knowing of his eventual crucifixion. Even though the disciples lived and worked with Jesus they weren’t sure that his victory over darkness was assured. Even after he TOLD them what would happen they weren’t sure.
Every time I hear the ending of Nessun Dorma I cannot help but imagine Jesus singing these words on the morning of his resurrection. Jesus, The Light of the World proclaiming his victory over the grave singing with love:
Dilegua, o notte! All’alba, vincerò! Vanish, on night! At dawn, I will win!
If you would like to hear my favorite version of Nessun Dorma on the internet you can click this link to be taken to YouTube, but please have the lyrics handy to read as you watch. Pavarotti brings these words to life at the 2:16 mark, but you will gain the most appreciation for the emotion if you listen to the entire song.
Sing – O Come All Ye Faithful
Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.