There is a minor hit list through the ages you might arrive at, as a prelude to Christmas. The Nutcracker if you are a ballet fan, Dicken’s A Christmas Carol if you like theatre, or one that has similarly lasted through the ages, Handel’s Messiah.
It took me a long time to arrive at Messiah. I bought tickets because I had never seen it. I heard it was three and a half hours which sounded a little intense, even intimidating. When we attended, I understood right away why it is a classic, and why everyone should enjoy Handel’s Messiah at least once in a lifetime.
There is a story told by one of Handel’s servants about the completion of his writing. He had been sequestered away for twenty-four days straight, writing intensely from dawn to dusk, seized by the muse of Christmas. The last movement of the oratorio is an end of the world vision, from Saint John’s Revelation. When the servant interrupted to remind Handel that he must eat, she found him in tears. He had just finished the Hallelujah chorus. He is said to have blurted out: “I think I did see all of Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels.”
I believe him. There is something about Messiah that is visionary and will make the hairs stand up on your skin. It is other-worldly in all the right ways. It reminds us that Christmas is heavenly. It comes to us from another world, as does the Christ child.
Witnessing the enormous retinue that is required to perform Messiah, you will see famous tenors and sopranos, a polished and oiled orchestra complete, and the chorus of singers. The group we saw, had practised since October. That is three months, intensely singing the same songs over and over, honing them to exactitude. But it did not diminish their enjoyment. When they performed, perfectly, in time and on point, there was obvious pride on the faces of the performers. They became ecstatic at certain points of the performance. As each soloist in turn did his or her part, the others smiled in enjoyment and pleasure. There were solicitous glances from the conductors, who tenderly and intensely directed the performers. When he entered the room they all stood, smiling. At the end of the show, they were presented with bouquets of flowers. They nodded, bowed, and turned around to signal to the audience that the performance was a shared credit to all who performed.
I suspect that participating in something so magnificent is life-changing, but more significantly for Messiah. I think that if you are a nominal Christian or an agnostic, Messiah will change you. Encapsulated within the entire performance, is a vision of Christ, taken from ancient scriptures and spelled out through all the stages, from prophecy, birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and triumph at the end of all days. Messiah has a high Christology, a gospel core that is unlike any presentation of Christmas I have ever seen.
Some of the spine-tingling scriptures are as follows: they may be familiar and it is fitting that they should be heard in sequence and all together, as a reminder that Christmas is about the promise of the Messiah, and a completion in the timeline of human affairs of which we are still a part.
…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.
…Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
…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, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
…Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
…How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
…I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand on the latter day upon the earth:
And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
…Behold, I tell you a 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;
…If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay any thing 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 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.
A step through the scriptures of Messiah can be found here.
The mystery of Messiah, is the mystery of all art. How strange and miraculous it is, that one man should hear such heavenly voices in his ear, that no one else can hear, and transcribe them with such exactitude that he shares the deepest meanings of Christmas with all of the world, in perpetuity, unto the ends of the world.
When I heard Messiah something magical happened to me as well. I was captured, enraptured by its majesty. It has been a stressful year filled with much work. As I watched the performance, the stress melted away, and it became Christmas for me, in ways that it seems I have long forgotten.
If it is true that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word, then Messiah is a must-see for every Christian to fully bring the Gospel message which is so overshadowed at Christmas back into its proper place. Words and music, mysterious and invisible to most, but somehow shared from the inspired pen of one composer to your ear. And what a Christmas it shall be, when what is invisible to most, comes to life.
And as Isaiah foretold, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. Hallelujah!