Earlier this summer, Mockingbird recommended an 1850 Verdi opera entitled Stiffelio. If you managed to catch this on DVD, you were no doubt confronted as I was with a theme as old as the Gospel, a theme that is the Gospel: the theme of our brokenness and God’s unmerited favor reaching out to us in that brokenness in order to rescue us.
Stiffelio deals with the infidelity of a pastor’s wife, the pastor’s subsequent discovery of it, and the way in which forgiveness unfolds, which comes in a way that could only be from God.
The most crushing scene takes place in the church’s cemetery, illuminated only by the moon and a warm swath of light from within the church, a light which is streaming through a single stained glass window. On the window is a simple image of the Cross.
Now, what do I mean by bringing up this Dylan lyric? Well, the cards that we as humankind are holding, in the absence of an intervention from outside, literally from outside of this world, ie., Christ–these cards are no good. The hand of cards that we’re holding as members of fallen humanity will only and always lead us to trouble in a never-ending cycle of hurt.
And we see these cards for Stiffelio the pastor and Lina his straying wife play out in grave detail. Just look at what Lina says when she is alone in the cemetery at the beginning of the scene:
My crime is written on every tomb, at every murmur of the breeze I hear the voice of judgment. (Looking down) This is my mother’s grave. She was so pure…and I? Mother, help me in my sorrow! (She throws herself down on her mother’s tomb.) Look down from the throne of heaven on your daughter’s sorrow. Offer the Lord these penitent tears. Weep for me with the Saints. Then God will not deny me his forgiveness.
So these are the cards that Lina is holding: shame, guilt, fear of impending judgment–a whole slew of negative emotions come to mind. Those are just a few.
A little later Stiffelio discovers that the rumors are true, and he finds that he is confronting his wife’s lover face to face. The man is on his knees in the cemetery before Stiffelio, who brandishes a sword over his head and says these words:
Do you not hear a terrible cry arise from the dead? The hour of your punishment has sounded!
So Stiffelio is confronted with a hand full of rage, anger and jealousy, just to mention a few. But at that moment God intervenes. He comes in the form of an elderly priest who has come out to fetch Stiffelio for the church service. And he comes in the form of the choir singing from within. They sing,
Do not punish me in anger, Lord…
Stiffelio drops the sword and turns away from the graves to face the church and the Cross in the window. The elderly priest tells Stiffelio, “Your brothers are singing. They ask for comfort.” Stiffelio replies,
Comfort? (Turning in prayer to God) Anger and hellfire consumes me. You would calm my heart with an icy hand. Let the blood cease to boil and my failing virtue gain strength.
But at that moment, the rage comes back. He turns to Lina and tells her,
Leave me! My heart is destroyed!
And once again God intervenes, gently, and again in the form of the choir singing,
Do not punish me in anger, Lord. Or I shall melt like mist in the sun.
Stiffelio is stopped in his tracks. He again lifts his eyes to God. The elderly priest says, “Lift your thoughts to God. Remember who you are.” So Stiffelio begins once again to pray,
I am a priest. Lord, inspire me to talk to them…
But again the rage comes back,
Not of forgiveness! The faithless woman! I curse her!
The elderly priest, still serving as a very real and present voice of God, says simply, “From the Cross, Christ pardoned all men.” And the scene closes with Stiffelio collapsing on the ground before the window and it’s image of the Cross.
Now, that’s some pretty heavy stuff. And a story like this never changes from generation to generation. What was true in Verdi’s day is true today. Humanity in its brokenness and sinfulness constantly gets things wrong and makes a mess out of life. But that wasn’t God’s final answer according to Verdi’s opera and that’s not God’s final answer for us, either.
The final scene of Stiffelio is what Tolkien would have called a eucatastrophe, which is a literary term he coined to refer to a favorable outcome that is completely unexpected. Incidentally, Tolkien thought of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the “ultimate eucatastrophe”.
The eucatastrophe in Stiffelio comes during the final scene, which is the church service for which the congregation had been gathered earlier. Lina is there in the congregation, and Stiffelio comes in to preach. He is obviously still conflicted by what has happened. He tells the elderly priest that his mind is confused, that he doesn’t know what to say. And the elderly priest, still the present voice of God, simply tells him, “Open the Holy Book. The Lord will inspire you.”
And do you know what happens? The Bible opens in Stiffelio’s hands to John Chapter 8, the story of the woman caught in adultery! And he reads the words,
Then Jesus, turning to the assembled people, pointed to the adulteress and said, ‘Whichever among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone…And the woman rose up forgiven.’
Stiffelio closes the Bible and sings the concluding, unexpected, undeserved, and miraculous final line of the opera:
Yes, forgiven. God has spoken it!
And Lina’s response is what I think our response will look like when we are some day face to face with the Lord. This is what it will look like when we are finally and completely rescued from our brokenness. We see glimpses of it now, but some day it will be complete and permanent.
Lina rises, cries out in joyous disbelief, lifts her hands to the heavens praising God, then clutches her chest in full comprehension of what has just been said; her Bible drops from her trembling hands as she falls prostrate on the floor before the pulpit, praising God for his mercy.