Just before Christmas of 1988 my wife, and I visited London. As the plane banked sharply over the city's center, we saw rowing crews on the Thames, and also Parliament, Whitehall Palace, and other landmark buildings lit in sepia by the slanting rays of morning sun. A fingernail moon hung low in the sky, and the morning star still shone. This was one of London's rare, perfect winter days.
Later that day, half-drunk on coffee, we were dragging along city streets, trying to wrench our biological clocks forward seven time zones by staying awake until dusk. Just before turning in, we lined up in a queue to order some theater tickets. That's when I saw the poster: "One Night Only. Handel's Messiah performed by the National Westminster Choir and National Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican Centre." The ticket seller assured me that of all Messiah performances in London, this was clearly the best. There were only two problems: the concert would begin in one hour, and it was sold out.
Twenty minutes later, following some spirited intramarital negotiations, we were in our hotel room squeezing out yet another round of Visine and dressing for a sold-out concert. This moment of serendipity we could not let pass. "Our presence is divinely ordained," I assured my wife. "We are in Handel's home town, where he wrote the piece." Surely a trifling matter like a sellout would not deter us from finding a way inside where we would enjoy an unsurpassed musical experience. Janet's arched eyebrow conveyed unmistakably what she thought of my circumstantial theology, but she indulged me.
After a pell-mell taxi ride to the concert hall, we stumbled across a civic-minded English chap who offered us his extra tickets at half price. My theology was looking better all the time. I started to relax, anticipating a soothing evening of baroque music. Seated on the back row of the main floor, we were ideally positioned for a catnap should the need arise.
I hardly anticipated what I got that evening. I had, of course, heard Handel's Messiah often. But something about this time—my sleep-starved, caffeine-buzzed state, the London setting, the performance itself—transported me back closer, much closer, to Handel's day. The event became not just a performance but a kind of epiphany, a striking revelation of Christian theology. I felt able to see beyond the music to the soul of the piece.
When George Frideric Handel composed Messiah, he was already the most famous musician of his time, enjoying an international reputation. In Italy he wowed audiences by dueling Domenico Scarlatti on the organ and harpsichord; while there, he also absorbed the romantic spirit and mastered the techniques of Italian composition. A subsequent trip to England earned this German-born composer such acclaim that, two years later, he returned to stay, becoming a naturalized citizen.
In the early eighteenth century, London was arguably the most vibrant city in the world. Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift led a band of iconoclastic wits and essayists. Sir Isaac Newton was spearheading what was to become a scientific revolution. In such a setting Handel had to run a gauntlet of sophisticated and snobbish music critics.
Yet composers also had to please live audiences. Spectators would play cards, wander around, crack nuts, spit freely, and loudly hiss or boo a singer they disliked. Handel thrived in this hurly-burly environment. A huge man, with an explosive temperament and expansive ego, he met the challenge by churning out a series of lively Italian operas—over 40 in all—that kept audiences enthralled for 25 years.
Eventually London's appetite for Italian opera was satiated. Soon after, Handel's company went bankrupt and he had to seek a new genre of composition. Around the same time (1737), Handel suffered a stroke, an affliction that, some biographers suggest, helped nudge him toward religious themes. He made the acquaintance of Charles Jennens, a wealthy eccentric who wrote librettos based on passages from Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer. The two began collaborating on a new art form, the biblical oratorio, an English-language religious opera.
The bishop of London scowled at the notion of presenting sacred Scripture theatrically and withheld his sanction. But Londoners flocked to Handel's presentations of Saul, Belshazzar, Esther, Deborah, Solomon, Israel in Egypt, Jephtha, and Samson—nearly 20 oratorios in all. Ever the showman, Handel scheduled himself as organ soloist at every premiere.
In the midst of this fertile period, Jennens brought Handel a script based on the life of Jesus. It was far more "conceptual" than Handel's other oratorios, and featured little stage action. Unlike the great German choral works, this one told Jesus' story indirectly, relying mostly on quotations from the Prophets and Psalms with only a sprinkling of Gospel passages. The libretto moved Handel deeply, and he set to work right away. His working speed was legendary, but this time he surpassed himself: in just 24 days, drawing on inspiration and some old material, he put together his great Messiah. The original manuscript still survives, its smudges, ink spots, and hasty corrections betraying the headlong pace of composition.
Alone of Handel's oratorios, Messiah did not debut in London. Twenty-six vocalists and a few instrumentalists, conducted by the composer himself, gave the first performance as a charity benefit in Dublin, Ireland, in April of 1742. The Passion season fit Messiah's themes perfectly (although it has since become almost exclusively a Christmas piece), and the charitable cause helped lessen the shock for an audience still nervous about hearing sacred text sung by worldly stage personalities.
In contrast to the stunning success in Dublin, London gave Messiah a cool reception the following year. Handel presented a slightly altered version in 1745, but that too met with little enthusiasm. Four years later another performance in Covent Garden went over well enough to encourage annual revivals. In Handel's last public appearance, he, then 74 and totally blind, took the baton to lead one more performance of Messiah as a benefit for his favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital.
In the last two-and-a-half centuries, not a single year has passed without a performance of Handel's Messiah.
Part 1: Bethlehem
As I leaned back in the Barbican Centre's padded seat and listened to the familiar beginning of Messiah, it was easy to understand how the oratorio came to be associated with the Advent season. Handel begins with a collection of lilting prophecies from Isaiah about a coming king who will bring peace and comfort to a disturbed and violent world. The music builds, swelling from a solo tenor ("Comfort ye my people ... ") to a full chorus joyously celebrating the day when "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed."
I had spent the morning viewing England's remnants of glory, and it occurred to me that just such images of wealth and power must have filled the minds of Isaiah's contemporaries who first heard that promise. I had seen the crown jewels, a solid-gold ruler's mace, and the gilded carriage of the Lord Mayor of London. When the Hebrews heard Isaiah's words, undoubtedly those dispossessed and landless refugees thought back with sharp nostalgia to the glory days of Solomon, when the palace and temple gleamed bright.
Yet rulers who bring a nation glory and prestige often do so by oppressing their subjects and leaching away their wealth. How many poor laborers paid taxes to gild the Lord Mayor's carriage, or King Solomon's residence? Because strong rulers thrive in a climate of fear, even the long-awaited Messiah inspired fear in the prophets. After its boisterous opening, I was surprised to hear Handel's Messiah shift so quickly to a somber, even foreboding tone, as if in recognition of this darker side of rulership. The bass warns of a Lord of Hosts who will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land.
Israelites were raised with a fear of God so profound that they would not speak or write his name, and from the Messiah they feared not the tyranny of injustice, but rather the prospect of holy justice. "But who may abide the day of his coming?" the contralto cries out in alarm, "For he is like a refiner's fire." If the Lord of Hosts paid a personal visit to corrupted Earth, would any of its inhabitants survive? Would Earth itself survive? The good news of hope hangs in limbo for a moment.
Then out of the tension in Handel's music there soon emerge gentle, familiar words that strikingly resolve the contradiction of a powerful, but comforting ruler: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, 'God with us.'" The God who comes to Earth comes not in a raging whirlwind, nor in a devouring fire. He comes instead in the tiniest form imaginable: as an ovum, and then fetus, growing cell by cell inside a humble teenage virgin. In Jesus, God found at last a mode of approach that human beings need not fear: a helpless baby suckling at his mother's breast.
"Behold your God!" the chorus joins in, as if astonished. I wondered how many of the Londoners celebrating Christmas caught the sense of scandal. Stores outside displayed Dickensian scenes of Christmas mirth, and mangers dotted the town squares. But how many grasped the awesome implications of "Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb"? As G. K. Chesterton once marveled, "The hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle."
Messiah lapses into an orchestral interlude, as if to let listeners ponder the two-pronged mission of a Messiah sent from Almighty God. And then it leaps ahead in time, from the prophets' promises to the stirring birth announcement in a pasture bordering Bethlehem. There, angels proclaimed to quaking shepherds that the reign of fear had ended. Fear not! That very night, God was doing an entirely new thing on Earth: he was becoming one of us. "Glory to God in the highest!" Handel's chorus sings.
Thus Part I of Messiah circles back to an old word, glory, but in the process bestows on it a new meaning. The Messiah is a king, but not one who relishes gold chariots and crown jewels. Soloists describe instead a king who opens the eyes of the blind and loosens the tongues of the mute, of a king who "shall feed his flock like a shepherd" and "shall gather the lambs with his arm."
For this reason Part 1 can end with a tender, almost paradoxical invitation: "Come unto him, all ye ... that are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. ... His yoke is easy, and his burden is light." The Messiah rules, surely, but he rules with a rod of love. Who may abide the day of his coming? Anyone may abide it; all who come unto him will be welcomed.
Part 2: Calvary
During intermission we mingled with other concert goers, and downed yet another cup of coffee. The drama of Part 1 was working its effect on me, however, even as I traded pleasantries in the lobby. Suddenly it seemed very odd to be sitting so politely as we listened to this earth-shattering story. We should be jumping or clapping hands, like charismatics.
Everyone else seemed quite calm and unperturbed, though, and we found our seats again and prepared for Messiah, Part 2. Any listener, no matter how musically naive, can sense an ominous change in the opening sounds. Handel telegraphs the darkening mood with dense orchestral chords in a minor key, then has the chorus announce it with his ever-significant introductory word, "Behold the Lamb of God!" Part 2 describes the world's response to that Messiah born of a virgin, and the story is tragic beyond all telling.
Handel relies mostly on the words of Isaiah 52-53, that remarkably vivid account written centuries before Jesus' birth. All sound ceases for a moment, and after this dramatic pause the contralto, with no accompaniment, gives the disturbing news: "He was de-spis-ed ... re-ject-ed." She pronounces each syllable with great effort, as if the facts of history are too painful to recite. Violins hauntingly reiterate each phrase.
At Calvary, history hung suspended. The bright hopes that had swirled around the long-awaited deliverer of Israel collapsed in darkness that fateful night. Dangling like a scarecrow between two thieves, the Messiah provoked at worst derision, at best pity. "All they that see him laugh him to scorn," says the tenor, who then adds, in the most poignant moment of Handel's oratorio, "Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow."
Yet all is not lost! A few measures later the same tenor introduces the first glimmer of hope: "But thou didst not leave his soul in hell." Almost immediately the whole chorus takes up the shout of joy: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates." For the defeat at Calvary was only an apparent defeat. The scarecrow corpse did not remain a corpse. He was the King of Glory after all!
Handel uses the rest of Part 2 to celebrate the triumph wrested from seeming defeat. Nations may rage together, conspiring against peace and justice, but "He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn." The word-play is intentional: he that was laughed to scorn will have the last laugh.
"Hallelujah!" the chorus cries out at last, and from there the music soars into what is unarguably the most famous portion of Handel's Messiah, and one of the most jubilant passages of music ever composed. Handel himself said that when he wrote the "Hallelujah!" chorus, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the Great God himself."
Part 1 ends with a scriptural invitation ("Come unto him") based on a paradox; Part 2 explains the paradox of how his yoke can indeed be easy, and his burden light. It is because of a transfer of suffering. At the cross, the pain and sorrow of humanity became the pain and sorrow of God. The chorus early on states it well: "Surely, he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows ... and with his stripes we are healed."
Furthermore, in that act death itself died. What happened next, on the day of resurrection, was a miracle deserving of all praise, deserving of the "Hallelujah!" chorus.
Part 3: Eternity
At the London premiere of Messiah, King George I stood for the singing of the "Hallelujah!" chorus. Some skeptics suggest that the king stood to his feet less out of respect for "Hallelujah!" than out of the mistaken assumption that Messiah had reached its conclusion. Even today novices in the audience make the same mistake. Who can blame them? After two hours of performance, the music seems to culminate in the rousing chorus. What more is needed?
I had never really considered the question until that night at the Barbican Centre. But as I glanced at the few paragraphs of libretto remaining, I realized what was missing from Parts 1 and 2. They supply the narrative of Jesus' life, but not the underlying meaning. Part 3 steps out from the story and, gathering quotations from Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation, provides that essential layer of interpretation.
When we flew to England earlier that day, the route took us over the polar ice cap. I knew that beneath the ice cap, nuclear attack submarines prowled, each one capable of killing a hundred million human beings. We landed in London to the news that a train had crashed, killing 51 commuters. Within the week, a terrorist bombed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270. Is this the world God had in mind at Creation? The world Jesus had in mind at Incarnation?
For reasons such as these, Handel's Messiah could not rightly end with the "Hallelujah!" chorus. The Messiah has come in "glory" (Part 1); the Messiah has died and been resurrected (Part 2). Why, then, does the world remain in such a sorry state? Part 3 attempts an answer. Beyond the images from Bethlehem and Calvary, one more messianic image is needed: the Messiah as Sovereign Lord. The Incarnation did not usher in the end of history—only the beginning of the end. Much work remains before creation is restored to God's original intent.
In a brilliant stroke, Part 3 of Messiah opens with a quotation from Job, that tragic figure who clung stubbornly to faith amid circumstances that called for bleak despair. "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth," the soprano sings out. Overwhelmed by tragedy, with scant evidence of a sovereign God, Job still managed to believe; and, Handel implies, so should we.
From that defiant opening, Part 3 shifts to the apostle Paul's theological explanation of Christ's death ("Since by man came death ... ") and then moves quickly to his lofty words about a final resurrection ("The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised").
Just as the tragedy of Good Friday was transformed into the triumph of Easter Sunday, one day all war, all violence, all injustice, all sadness will likewise be transformed. Then and only then we will be able to say, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" The soprano carries that thought forward to its logical conclusion, quoting from Romans 8: "If God be for us, who can be against us?" If we believe, truly believe, that the last enemy has been destroyed, then we indeed have nothing to fear. At long last, death is swallowed up in victory.
Handel's masterwork ends with a single scene frozen in time. To make his point about the Christ of eternity, librettist Jennens could have settled on the scene from Revelation 2, where Jesus appears with a face like the shining sun and eyes like blazing fire. Instead, his text concludes with the scene from Revelation 4-5, perhaps the most vivid image in a book of vivid imagery.
Twenty-four impressive rulers are gathered together, along with four living creatures who represent strength and wisdom and majesty—the best in all creation. These creatures and rulers kneel respectfully before a throne luminous with lightning and encircled by a rainbow. An angel asks who is worthy to break a seal that will open up the scroll of history. Neither the creatures nor the 24 rulers are worthy. The author realizes well the significance of that moment, "I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside."
Besides these creatures, impotent for the grand task, one more creature stands before the throne. Though appearance offers little to recommend him, he is nevertheless history's sole remaining hope. "Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain." A lamb! A helpless, baa-baa lamb, and a slaughtered one at that! Yet John in Revelation, and Handel in Messiah, sum up all history in this one mysterious image. The great God who became a baby, who became a lamb, who became a sacrifice—this God, who bore our stripes and died our death, this one alone is worthy. That is where Handel leaves us, with the chorus "Worthy Is the Lamb," followed by exultant amens.
We were sitting in a modern brick-and-oak auditorium in the late twentieth century in a materialistic culture light years removed from the imagery of slaughtered lambs. But Handel understood that history and civilization are not what they appear. Auditoriums, dynasties, civilizations-all rise and fall. History has proven beyond doubt that nothing fashioned by the hand of humanity will last. We need something greater than history, something outside history. We need a Lamb slain before the foundations of the world.
I confess that belief in an invisible world, a world beyond this one, does not come easily for me. Like many moderns, I sometimes wonder if reality ends with the material world around us, if life ends at death, if history ends with annihilation or solar exhaustion. But that evening I had no such doubts. Jet lag and fatigue had produced in me something akin to an out-of-body state, and for that moment the grand tapestry woven by Handel's music seemed more real by far than my everyday world. I felt I had a glimpse of the grand sweep of history. And all of it centered in the Messiah who came on a rescue mission, who died on that mission, and who wrought from that death the salvation of the world. I went away with renewed belief that he (and we) shall indeed reign forever and ever.
It was a good decision after all, attending this serendipitous concert.
Philip Yancey is a columnist and editor at large for Christianity Today. This article originally appeared on December 15, 1989.
Don't miss Christianity Today's other Christmas Classics:
Whose Child Is This? | The early church's opponents claimed Jesus was illegitimate. Its heretical fringe said he wasn't human. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth set them both straight. (Dec. 22, 2000)
C.S. Lewis on Christmas | Lewis summed up Christmas in one sentence: 'The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.' (Dec. 23, 1999)
Bethlehem on a Budget | Planning a church budget and the Christmas story share surprising similarities. (Dec. 23, 1999)
Is Christmas Pagan? | Long before Constantine, Christians found ways to redeem local cultures and salvage those elements that naturally pointed to Christ. (Dec. 21, 1999)
Christmas and the Modern Jew | Christians often seem to lack both good missionary strategies toward Jews and sensitivity to their situation in life. (Dec. 3, 1999)
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