When I was a teenager Uncle Don and Auntie Ruth Stoddard gave us an old record player. They also gave us a stack of records. Most of these didn’t meet my teenage definition of appropriate music but there was one vinyl record that captured my imagination. It was a four record set of Handel’s complete Messiah. I loved it for the discovery that the Messiah was so much more than just the Hallelujah chorus. I loved learning that this was music mostly for Easter but it had been often coopted for Christmas instead. And I loved how it made me feel—the swells of emotion, the heart aching longings, the building anticipations, the burst of fulfillment and holiness. I loved hearing the small Hallelujah chorus in the broader context of all three parts.
This is the time of year when you’re most apt to hear Handel’s Messiah–or bits of it. The original score, with over 50 songs and in three parts, takes over two and a half hours to perform. George Friderik Handel composed the entire score in less than 25 days in response to the lyrical text that his friend and long time musical colleague, Charles Jennens, had penned. Beginning with the words, “Comfort, Comfort my people”, Part I outlines the prophecies and promises God makes to send the Messiah, including the great crescendo, “For Unto Us a Child is Given.” Part II is given to the passion of Christ, his death and resurrection, his ascension and also to the spread of the gospel message. Part III solidifies the promise of eternal life and the Divine victory over sin. It also concentrates on the New Testament teaching “of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.”
The piece originally premiered in Dublin in 1742. Ladies were reportedly requested to avoid hoop skirts so the venue could accommodate more people. Originally written for Easter and the Lenten season, Jennens took the words from the Old Testament in the King James Bible particularly from the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah’s book.
There is a curious tradition that yet lingers with most audiences where the audience stands for the Hallelujah chorus. There is some question about how and when this practice started. Many suggest that it started when King George II, upon hearing the music and the lyrics for the first time in the mid-1740s, was so moved during this part of the composition, that he leapt to his feet and ordered his subjects to join him.
The other day I was mindlessly humming a tune I couldn’t place. Slowly I realized that my brain was looping the line, “And the Government shall be upon His Shoulder. And his name shall be called….” Over and over again the tune fragment played on my lips. Eventually I found the fuller piece on YouTube and listened to it in its glorious entirety.
This year I’m stuck on the verse from Isaiah chapter 9 that Handel set to music in Part I– For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Isn’t this what we yearn for? Don’t we collectively ache for Someone to be in charge of governments and administrations and elections and regimes? Don’t we want desperately an unending relationship with a True Father? Wouldn’t our pinings for a fairy tale be swept away by the Prince of Peace? Don’t we each crave a Wonderful Counselor who created us and knows us in our deepest spaces? Don’t you want to experience a Mighty God?
The good news is we can! The prophet Isaiah’s predictions have come true. The child is born, the son is given. And like any gift, in order to have it, we need only receive. With wonder and profound amazement, shake your head a little, and welcome the One who has come.
Jesus is calling people from every tongue and tribe, every community, every country. He personally invites Christians from Kansas, Muslims from Mongolia, Hindus from Hong Kong, Atheists from Addis Ababa, People-who-plain-and-simply-don’t-give-a-damn from all over to come. Come and meet God— the King of kings and the Lord of lords—and experience transformation and sweet relief! Come and have a conversation. Come and experience. Come and engage. Come and exchange your weariness, your hopelessness, your frustrations, your self-absorption, your brokenness for strength, hope, peace, wonder and healing.
There are many reasons why the Handel’s Messiah still compels musicians and audiences alike. Wherever bits and pieces of the Messiah are performed—in malls with flash mobs, in high school choirs, in philharmonic settings—it brings joy and expectation and a hope stirred up in us. In many ways, it’s difficult to stay seated until the Hallelujah chorus bursts into the air. We still, nearly involuntarily, rise from our seats, with hearts longing for our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace.