Apr 15, 2023
“Were Handel and Jennens dog whistle revolutionaries?... It is one thing to criticize the secular State, yet another to call for dashing it to pieces.”
Some performance! But the critics loved it. In this, our Holy Days Issue, we dig deeper into the political (vs. the theological) message of this masterpiece.
To understand Messiah, it is helpful to view it in historical context. The House of Stuart ruled England, more or less continuously, from 1603 to 1714. The first two kings of this dynasty, James I and Charles I, were ideological royalists. They believed in the divine right of kings. Philosophical nominalists, they believed that God and his royal avatars were free to act however they wished. Le loi c’est moi!
George Frideric Handel wrote his Messiah in 1741, and it was first performed in Dublin in 1742 during the Easter season. (Messiah was intended, not to celebrate Christmas, but Easter.) Easter is resurrection, spring, the celebration of new life.
But first, ‘the winter of our discontent’, leading to crucifixion and burial in an unmarked grave. Messiah ‘opens’ sometime between sundown on Good Friday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. Dante’s Divine Comedy does the same.
This is the time, according to Roman Catholic theology, when Christ himself ‘descended into hell’ to liberate the souls trapped in Hades. In other words, Messiah begins in the ‘valley of the shadow of death’, but it begins with a whisper 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.
These verses from Isaiah meet all of us, from Jesus’ apostles to today’s ATMers, right where we stand, even if that’s in the pit of despair. For centuries it was believed that revolution took root in and sprung-up out of the depths of human misery. Not so! We learned in the 20th century that revolution is ignited by ‘a spark of hope’, and it was just such a spark that Handel and his librettist, Jennens, hoped their Messiah might light.
The libretto comes almost exclusively from Old and New Testament texts. The selection and arrangement of these texts rest squarely with the composer and his librettist. The oratorio consists of an interwoven series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. As you move through the narrative, notice how an 18th century political message has been woven into historical and spiritual details from the Bible.
Building on the message of hope, Messiah proceeds to present its ‘revolutionary program’. It’s not a political platform (like the Communist Manifesto). It’s not a utopian wish list. It’s a ‘How To’ manual, Jennens’ version of V.I. Lenin’s What is to be Done? (I am tempted to compare it to the famous Anarchists’ Cookbook from the 1960s – but that might be a stretch.)
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.
What is revolution but turning society upside-down like an hourglass and inside-out, like a sock? What was peripheral becomes central, and vice versa. The stone rejected by the builders becomes the cornerstone.
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. 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 shakes all nations? This is very different from the expectations of James and Charles. But more importantly, the result will satisfy the ‘desire of all nations’. This is a brand-new test of political legitimacy, and it presages the eruption of democratic movements later in the 18th century. According to Locke, Rousseau, et al., secular government evolved to secure peace, justice, and prosperity for its people. According to Messiah, those values will only be fully realized once the Kingdom of God replaces the kingdoms of men (sic), but in the meantime they may be reflected to varying degrees in various secular states. The scene is set. Now…”Action!” (P.S. Please don’t shoot anyone.)
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 ‘cart-tipper’: A virgin conceive? A baby be God? God be with us?
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. The people that 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. 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.
Messiah makes it clear that the legitimacy and sovereignty of all government is rooted in Christ. Its sovereignty is just a reflection of his sovereignty. Christ is the foundation of all political authority, including that of the British monarchy.At this juncture, we can imagine the royal party being quite pleased with itself. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be God’s ‘avatar’ on Earth. But grounding temporal authority in Christology can lead to unintended consequences for secular rulers. Remember, we’re less than 50 years from the Bastille and the bloody guillotine.
There were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night… 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.” 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 marks of divine favor, an indication that God is ‘well pleased’ with his temporal rulers.
End Part One, Begin Part Two.
What an auspicious beginning! Shepherds were the first to acknowledge Christ’s kingship. Magi notwithstanding, this was to be a revolution led by the proletariat (shepherds and fishermen). Jesus welcomed support from elements of the elite (fellow travelers like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), but he never lost sight of his roots: he was the red-headed stepchild of a displaced carpenter, born in an ox’s stable and swaddled in its manger. And from there, it was all downhill.
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. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.
Handel and Jennens are no anarchists. In a vague reference to the Book of Judges (21: 25), our ‘Sacco & Vanzetti’ make it clear that they are not prepared to entrust social order to the conscience of individuals. Authority is necessary, but that authority must reflect the sovereignty of Christ. The exercise of secular authority must reflect Jesus’ values (‘WWJD’). The final triumph of the Kingdom of God will not happen suddenly or spontaneously. 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.
We are the preachers! How beautiful are our feet! We are charged to bring ‘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 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. Let us break their bonds asunder and cast away their yokes from us… Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.
The oratorio has built to this moment: an overt call to revolution! Break bonds asunder, cast away yokes, break them with a rod of iron, dash them like so many shards of pottery. Not the language of constitutional debate.The message is clear: it is the kings of the earth who are responsible for these bonds and yokes, and it is we, the people, working with the Lord, who must break them.
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. Would 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 subliminal messaging? Were Handel and Jennens dog whistle revolutionaries?
All of which brings us to the famous Hallelujah Chorus, perhaps the best-known chorus in all of Western music, save only the Ode to Joy:
Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. ‘The kingdom of this world has 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. Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent ‘reigneth’.
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 secular State, yet another to call for dashing it to pieces. But it quite another thing altogether to celebrate prospectively the obliteration of the secular order. According to Handel and Jennens, the secular state (per Marx) has already withered away! The essence of Christian social teaching is that that state withered away at the birth of Christ. (Is the Adoration of the Magi symbolic of this event?) Now we just have to wait for history to catch up to theology.
End Part Two, Begin Part III, the Celebration.
Here we can take off the training wheels. From here on, let Jennens’ libretto speak for itself. No more intrusions from the Peanut Gallery (you’re welcome):
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. Amen!
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 email@example.com.