By Kathleen Staudt
This shopping season, I’ve already received two videos of “flash mobs” singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus in unexpected public places – a mall food court, at Macy’s in Philadelphia, to the accompaniment of the Wanamaker organ. (See them here and here In these videos no one seems to be offended by “Christian” content – there is wonder and delight in the music – in both cases performed by very able singers! Something hopeful and exciting has burst in on the mundane, and people seem to appreciate it. I think that these videos capture not only the fun of this kind of guerilla culture-event, but also the hopefulness that is carried in the words and music of that particular piece. And it has got me thinking of how important Handel’s Messiah as a whole has been to my own formation over the years.
A recording of Messiah was the first “adult” Christmas present I remember receiving. I was 16, and had sung a few choruses from Messiah in high school chorus. My parents gave me the Robert Shaw Chorale’s performance, my very own – probably the first classical album I owned, too. I cried when I opened it. I hadn’t realized how much I really wanted to be able to listen to this music.
Why did I like the Messiah so much as a young person? I think I was responding to the way that it uses the poetry of Scripture to tell a profound story, without insisting on belief or professions of faith. It was a time of my life when I was beginning to ask what it meant to be a Christian in a world where not everyone was Christian, and especially what it meant to be a thinking person who embraced Christian belief, and with it Christian hope?
I already knew the Bible pretty well from my Presbyterian Sunday school upbringing , and I was also a universalist (still am) in my thinking about the salvation on offer to us from a God whose mercy surpasses ours. . To me Messiah, performed in all kinds of secular contexts in the Easter and Christmas seasons, seemed to present Christian faith in a broad, nondenominational but deeply committed way. I still look forward to hearing the whole thing performed at least once a year. Familiar as it is, it is also poetic theology at its best. The music carries and interprets the words, and all the words are from the Bible. The text and music work together, revealing the radical hope that is the underlying thread of the Biblical story. And perhaps most strikingly, in this oratorio that tells the story of Jesus, the majority (not all, but the majority) of the texts are taken, not from the gospels but from Hebrew Scripture.
The librettist of Messiah was a Balliol educated Shakespeare scholar named Charles Jennens (1707-1773). He was a staunch Protestant but a “non-juror – i.e. he refused to recognize the Hanoverian dynasty that was ruling England. He was a huge admirer of Handel, and evidently a devout man, steeped in Scripture and in the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. Disillusioned with the earthly king, he seems to have placed his hope in the promise of God’s kingdom coming on earth. (and so in words most of us can sing: the text from Revelation: “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.”)
As a poetic text, the libretto of Messiah is both lyrical and distinctively “Anglican” in feel; like the Book of Common Prayer it stitches together pieces of Scripture in a way that creates a theologically grounded narrative. But this isn’t simply Christian triumphalism: these same Blblical texts, in their original context in Hebrew Scripture, invite us to a way of reading the whole of “salvation history” as told in Hebrew Scripture as an essential part of our ongoing story as Christians.
Within Hebrew Scripture (the “Old Testament”) the overall story is of a God who desires to redeem his people, and does so by calling them out to be a “chosen people”, bound by covenant and formed by joyful obedience to the law. In various ways, and at various points in history, they disobey, fall away from the promise, and terrible, hideous things happen. Sometimes they heed the call to return, but in the era of Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, 722- 520 BCE, the story is of their repeated failures to the messengers of God, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah especially, who warn them that the failure of rulers and people to live faithfully will ultimately result in disaster. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile in Babylon are understood as God’s righteous punishment of Israel, and the ultimate return from Babylon and rebuilding of the temple is seen as evidence of God’s abiding mercy and love for God’s people.
Underlying all of this is the theology of a Creator-God, a God of both Justice and Mercy, reliable and intimately engaged with history. The prophetic voice known as 2nd Isaiah (which begins at Chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah) dates from the time when exile is ending and those exiled from Judah are being called to return. Speaking to the remnant of Jerusalem, those who have stayed behind, the prophet predicts that there will be a path through the wilderness, leading back to Jerusalem, and the glory of the Lord will be restored to its rightful place in the Temple: “Comfort ye, my people.” He says on God’s behalf . . . “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. . . every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed (see Isaiah 40: 1-11). By beginning the whole oratorio with this text, Jennens/Handel remind us how central to all of Scripture is the story of Exile and Return – the recurring plot of a God who ultimately desires healing and restoration, despite human perversity. And following ancient Christian tradition, they imply that the coming of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.
The other theme from Hebrew Scripture, perhaps more alive for those in the 18th century than for us now, is the prophecy that the restoration of Jerusalem will involve the restoration of a thoroughly righteous king in the Davidic line: the Messiah. This is a tradition that viewed the reign of David as a golden age, when the king and people were faithful to God and lived in security and prosperity. They look forward to a ruler chosen by God and in intimate connection with God, who will preach peace. So the longing for Messiah joins with the postexilic theme that the chosen people are chosen to become a “light to the nations” – a beacon to all and a manifestation of God’s will for the world.
There are also apocalyptic themes but again couched in Messianic hope. Despite assaults by surrounding nations, despite world politics, as long as Jerusalem remains faithful to God, she will be preserved and will become ultimately the city of God, the place where God’s glory dwells. (In the later chapters of Isaiah and in postexilic prophets (Haggaie, Zephaniah, Micah), there is the expectation that after great trial, God’s kingdom will be restored, the temple purified, and the Anointed one will come.
So that’s the framework, the story as told in Hebrew Scripture. And I think Handel’s Messiah is sensitive to that poetry of exile, return, and ultimate hope.
While our Jewish neighbors are still waiting, we believe that Messiah has come, and that the era of the reign of God has begun, despite persistent human efforts to thwart it. We are waiting for the fulfillment of this (A Jewish friend once remarked, wisely, that the season of Advent is the time when the spirit of Jewish and Christian tradition are most closely connected—paradoxical as this seems.) What does it mean to believe, claim, proclaim this? I think that is the theological question that Handel’s Messiah is raising and exploring, for an audience that is mostly Anglican, highly educated, and wary of superstition and doctrine. So, arguably, he is somposing for a “modern” even secular, audience. Messiah carefully resists two common traps in Christian readings of the Old Testament throught the New. First, it is not dispensationalist (i.e. between the “old dispensation” ruled by an angry Old Testament God, and the “new dispensation” of grace and mercy, ruled by Jesus and excluding the Jews) No: Messiah presents the whole of Scripture as telling a continuous story of the divine mercy that longs to lead people out of darkness into light, out of death into life, to a final, confident Amen.
This is also not a piece that preaches Christian triumphalism: Many people listen to Messiah, whether they believe in the Christian story or not, and respond to the message of radical hope it carries. The emphasis of the story is apocalyptic, proclaiming the triumph of God and– a sense of the “fullness of time” -but it does not exalt a cultural and political Christianity trampling down more primitive faiths or knocking down the idols; it is not Constantinian or triumphalist. Rather, with a calm that belongs to the Age of Reason it demonstrates how the text of the Bible presents prophecy that is fulfilled in good time. It looks ahead to the reign of God – not to a human empire, but a time when human sinfulness is overcome and the reign of God is established (where Christ is, in the word’s of Revelation: “King of king and Lord of Lords) And he shall reign forever and ever.” Whether you believe it or not, it is a compelling story.
As for literary form, the basic approach in Messiah is juxtaposition: this is how we construct lyric poetry, as opposed to narrative or didactic poetry. Jennens had a narrative in mind – the story of salvation history. But he tells it by juxtaposing texts from Scripture. Isn’t this also how we do theology in our Anglican liturgical practice? Many of our most beloved services work through juxtaposition of Scriptural texts. Think of the readings at the Easter Vigil, or the beginning of the burial service, or , from the 20th century, the telling of the “whole story” in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols.
When we get New Testament texts in the first section of Messiah, they are usually juxtaposed to Old Testament texts, illuminating, interpreting them. So we have, for example, Isaiah 40: 11: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” alongside Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden. . . “ Each text interprets and validates the other. We have Jesus bringing in the New Covenant of grace – the theology is not explicit but it is expressed in the music, in the joyful chorus: “His yoke is easy, his burthen is light.”
Handel and Jennens could assume that their audience knew the Passion story, But whether you know the story or not, the poetry of the juxtaposed Scriptural passages carries it. The piece is not interested in any questions about personal belief or salvation or “who’s in and who’s out” . Rather it is interested in what “Kingdom of God” might look like –the fulfillment that has been promised all along. That is the focus of Parts 2 and 3 of Messiah, summed up for many in the music of the Hallelujah chorus -- very positive, focusing on coming of God’s kingdom on earth. The emphasis here is not on individual guilt or repentance, but more on divine suffering and victory for the sake of “us” – a universal human restoration. So the Passion story sings out as the fulfillment of the Chosen One’s calling using the prophet Isaiah’s descriptions of the Suffering Servant (He was despised and rejected. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”). Salvation has come. It is for all. And it has all been done for us. “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” – the Easter section begins – using a text from the book of Job. And it ends by giving life to the cryptic words from Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and the singing of an endless and cosmic chorus of Amen.
But the texts that stay with us most through the haunting familiar music of Messiah are from Second Isaiah . They tell of the hope of God’s people in the time of exile, as they awaited deliverance from exile and the return of a good king in the line of David. It is the hope we proclaim as Christians, believing that Messiah has come. It is ultimately, for the librettist of Messiah, a paradoxical, universal hope for all humanity: – rooted in ancient prophecies of exile and return: “Comfort ye, my people. . . . The People that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. . for unto us a child is born, . . . and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.