Handel’s Messiah

David Cowles

Nov 30, 2022

"There is only one full proof indication that Christmas is coming: the endless performances of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Yup, it’s that time of year!

“Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” (We are the World, 1985) How do we know it's Christmastime (absent a pesky reminder from Google Calendar)? Holiday themed store windows? No, we have no more stores. We buy online now, and the cloud doesn’t know from seasons.


Mall Santas? Seriously, does anyone over 16 even go to a mall anymore? Ok, last shot, Holiday decorations? No soap! We leave ours up all year-round now.


No, there is only one full proof indication that Christmas is coming: the endless performances of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Yup, it’s that time of year!


From full orchestra productions to local church singalongs, even the occasional pop radio cut, it’s all Handel all the time. Until it isn’t! After December 25, ‘seldom is heard an encouraging word’…until the following November.


George Frideric Handel wrote his most famous Oratorio in 1741, and it was first performed in Dublin in 1742 during the Easter season. Yup, although Handel ranks somewhere between Santa Claus and Frosty in the annals of Christmas lore, his Messiah was intended for Easter.


The Messiah opens with words of encouragement; it meets you where you stand, even if that’s on the brink of despair. It begins with a timeless message of hope:


Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.


The libretto of the Messiah comes almost exclusively from the Old and New Testaments…but the Bible gives you a lot to work with!  The selection and arrangement of texts rest squarely with the composer (Handel) and his librettist (Jennens), and it’s clear pretty much from the outset that Messiah will operate on at least three distinct but related levels:


First, it is a major musical work with an important place in both the canon and the repertoire of classical music. Second, it is a quasi-liturgical celebration of Salvation History. Finally, it is a reflection on a theme that consistently runs just below the surface of Judeo-Christian culture: the relationship between God’s Kingdom and human institutions.


Building on the message of hope (above), Messiah presents its ‘program’ (V.I. Lenin, What is to be done?)


The voice of him who crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway to our God.


Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, and ev'ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.


If you build it, he will come! We are being prepared for climax, the faith and vision of Job in Part III.


Thus, saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.


Early on, Handel and Jennens spotlight the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man (sic). The manifestation of the Lord on earth requires that he “shake all nations”. But good news, the Kingdom of God will satisfy all of our human desires.


Secular institutions of government evolved to secure peace, justice, and prosperity for the people, but those values will only be fully realized when the Kingdom of God replaces the kingdoms of man. And the need for renewal does not stop on the steps of city hall. We all must undergo a process of purification, nobody more so than the clergy:


But who may abide the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appeareth? And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.


The prologue is complete; and now…”Action!”


Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us.


If we didn’t already know the story by heart, this line would be a real attention grabber: A virgin conceive? A human baby be God? God be ‘with us’ in this way?


O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain, lift up thy voice with strength; be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah: Behold your God! Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.


Good tidings indeed! The best. But we’re just getting started. In one of many oblique references to the Book of Job, the text invites us to “behold’ our God. You can read our essay on Job here. (More on this to come.)


For behold, darkness shall cover the earth. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.


‘Darkness’ refers to ignorance (the worst of all possible evils, according to Job). The ‘light’ then is the light of knowledge and understanding. It shines through the shadow of death (Psalm 23).


And now on to the Messiah’s first climax:


For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.


This is the first indication of the Messiah’s political message. Handel and Jennens make it clear that the legitimacy and sovereignty of all government is rooted in Christ. Its sovereignty is a reflection of his sovereignty.


Note that our composers were careful to wait until they were certain the audience (royal audience?) was sucked into the theology. Then they introduce ‘politics’ in a very non-threatening way. Christ is the foundation of all political authority, but therefore also the foundation of the British Monarchy.


One can imagine the royal party quite pleased with themselves…but for how long? We’re less than 40 years from the Bastille Day and the dreaded guillotine. As we shall soon see, to ground temporal authority on Christology is to lay a trap for secular rulers; but I don’t want to give away too much too soon.


There were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”


And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men (sic).


Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; he is the righteous Savior, and he shall speak peace to the heathen.


Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.


These are the traditional signs of divine favor, an indication that God is ‘well pleased’ with his temporal rulers.


He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.


His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.


End Part One, commence Part Two. Handel and Jennens jump ahead now from Jesus’ nativity to his encounter with John the Baptist on the banks of Jordan, 30 years later. John declares:


Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.


What an auspicious beginning! Angels attended his birth, and shepherds were the first to acknowledge his kingship. Magi notwithstanding, this was to be a revolution led by the proletariat (shepherds and fishermen). Jesus welcomed support from elements of the elite (e.g., Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), but he never lost sight of who he really was: a red-headed stepchild of a displaced carpenter, born in an ox’s stable, laid in its feeding trough, its manger.


Nor would the future be any bed of roses:


 He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off his hair: he hid not His face from shame and spitting. Surely, he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace. And with his stipes, we are healed.


All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.


Apparently, Handel and Jennens are no anarchists. In a vague reference to the Book of Judges, our duo makes it clear that they are not prepared to entrust social order to the consciences of individuals. Authority is necessary, but that authority must rest on the sovereignty of Christ. The exercise of that authority must reflect Jesus’ values and must be consonant with his will. Aye, there’s the rub. But we’re not there yet, not by a long shot:


All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying: “He trusted in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, if he delights in him.”


Thy rebuke hath broken his heart: he is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort him.


Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow. He was cut off out of the land of the living. For the transgressions of thy people, he was stricken. But thou didst not leave his soul in hell; nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.


Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, The Lord mighty in battle. The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory.


Unto which of the angels said He at any time: "Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee?" Let all the angels of God worship Him.


Thou art gone up on high; thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men; yea, even from thine enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among them.


The final triumph of the Kingdom of God will not suddenly and spontaneously appear. We have a role to play as well, and that roll requires full-on effort on our part:


The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers. How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things. Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.


The mission is clear. We are the preachers; we are charged with bringing ‘glad tidings of good things…unto the ends of the world’.


Now, appropriately, Handel and Jennens double back. We have our marching orders. Now we need to refocus on the immediate task at hand:


Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise-up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed.


Vanity is the root of all that is wrong with the world (Ecclesiastes) and vanity is synonymous with idolatry, the first thing forbidden in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) and the only thing forbidden (implicitly) by the Great Commandment.


Idols are caricatures of the divine. To worship a lifeless idol is worship in vain. Alfred North Whitehead correctly understood that ‘idolatry’ lies at the root of most of our social problems, but he called it, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Misplaced concreteness…what a great euphemism! It’s like defining an adulterer as someone who is matrimonially challenged.

 

Whitehead’s fallacy explains “why the nations so furiously rage together”; they have taken ‘power and plunder’ as their idols. The text makes it clear that planning and waging war is not only in vain, but also a conspiracy “against the Lord and against his anointed” (Christ).


Let us break their bonds asunder and cast away their yokes from us. He that dwelleth in Heav'n shall laugh them to scorn; The Lord shall have them in derision. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.


Notice how the oratorio has built to this moment: the first overt call to revolution! One might assume that it was merely a natural outgrowth of basic Christian theology.


Consider the language: Breaking bonds asunder, casting away yokes, and dashing them with a rod of iron like so many shards of pottery.  By implication, certainly, it is the kings of the earth who are responsible for these bonds and yokes, and it is we, the people, who must dash them to pieces using a rod of iron.


Should someone actually hear what is being sung, and take umbrage, Handel and Jennens could feign the innocence of ignorance. “What? Are not all of these words taken from divinely inspired scripture?”


Yes, but it was Handel and Jennens who decided which verses to select and in what order to place them. It is as fair to say that Handel and Jennens had as much control over the content of the Messiah as James Joyce had over the content of Ulysses; but using orthodox theology as cloud cover, they were able to perform their works right under the eye of the censer, unnoticed.


In any event, this is not the sort of rhetoric that allows a ‘ruler’ to enjoy a quiet night’s sleep. And of course, the message is made all the more incendiary by its suggestion that these same kings are to be laughed at, scorned, and held in derision. Powerful stuff! And potentially dangerous.


Thought experiment: it’s March 1752, and you have a small printing press in your basement. You’ve printed these very same words (above) onto flyers which you are now distributing outside London’s Covent Garden Theater, scene of the Messiah’s London debut. Can you escape imprisonment…or worse?


But lifted from scripture and embedded in the middle of a musical masterwork, the political import of the Messiah’s message can escape notice. Is this an early version of subminimal messaging? Or were Handel and Jennens ‘dog whistle’ revolutionaries?


This brings us the Messiah’s penultimate climax, the Hallelujah Chorus, perhaps the best-known chorus in all of Western music:


Hallelujah: for the Lord God, Omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. King of kings, and Lord of lords.


If Handel had been playing in the NFL, he would have been called for a personal foul: “taunting.” It is one thing to criticize the state, another thing to tease the rulers, yet another thing to call for dashing things to pieces. But it quite another thing to celebrate prospectively the obliteration of the secular order.


I am reminded of Hillary Clinton’s ‘victory party’ in Philly, the night before her electoral defeat in 2016.  The arrogance was breathtaking, and not lost, I’m sure, on the voters of PA. But Handel is not Hillary Clinton. He has the assurance of scripture on this side. That the Kingdom of God will come is not in question (sorry, George R); it is only a matter of when...and how.


Part III, the finale, begins with one of the most famous lines in all Scripture. It comes from the Book of Job, and it was one of the earliest expressions of faith in the Old Testament:


I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter-day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.


Job’s faith is validated by Christ’s resurrection from the dead:


For now, is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep. Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. Behold, I tell you a great mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.


Salvation history does not follow the linear trajectory of time. It loops. Christ is the new Adam, and we are the new Christ. Job beholds his Redeemer three times. The first time he beholds Christ in faith. He is sitting on a dung hill, his body covered with boils, his children slaughtered, his wealth plundered, his good name besmirched. Nevertheless, he knows.


Job beholds Christ again at Christ’s resurrection. Between his entombment and his resurrection, Christ’s spirit is ‘harrowing hell’. Like the Vacuum Monster in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, Christ sucks up everything that came before him. Time begins anew, for everyone, at the Resurrection. It is Day One of the rest of all our lives.


Finally, Job beholds Christ at his Second Coming, at the eschaton:


The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on in corruption and this mortal must put on immortality.


From here on, I think we can let Jennens libretto speak for itself. No more interruptions from the Peanut Gallery, until the end:


Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory, the victory through God.


If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.


Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.


And now the actual climax of the oratorio, one simple word:


Amen.


Let it be, so be it! Musically and theologically, it is a fitting end to this choral masterpiece!


Everybody loves the Messiah! But do we love it only because we perceive its politics to be irrelevant? After all, it was composed in England more than 250 years ago.


Or do we love it in spite of its content because the theology no longer resonates with us? Do we understand the message to be true, literally, or do we understand it as a poetic invocation of the virtue of hope, just in time for the Holidays.


Sidebar: Handel intended the Messiah to be included in the Easter repertoire, but fairly early it found its home in Advent, the season just before Christmas. If we’re focused on the theology of the Messiah, we would want to hear it during the Easter Season. But if we understand it as a pagan paean of Hope, then Christmas, the winter solstice, would be the most appropriate time.


In America, we don’t like to mix our religion and our politics. We believe in ‘the separation of church and state’. In fact, we’ve turned the modern secular state into our own idol. If we understood the Messiah as politically relevant and theologically persuasive, it is unlikely that Messiah would sell out every performance.


Earlier, I suggested that Handel and Jennens might best be understood as ‘dog whistle’ revolutionaries. If so, then the entire audience must be tone-deaf…except for me!


 

Image Courtesy of British Museum.


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

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