Thursday, December 24, 2009

The more that is needed

Last week I had the wonderful experience of seeing George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" in concert for the very first time. It was as moving as many had promised it would be. The moments of exuberant joy were of course among the most familiar in the production. Yet I was also deeply moved by the moments of solemnity, which are choruses of other kind: cries for relief from the anguish of a world bent by sin and death.

In many ways, my emotional response to the production echoed that of well-known Christian author Philip Yancey who, in his Christianity Today essay, describes how "the bright and glistening theology" of the Messiah broke through to him in a new way one memorable winter night. The essay is truly a treat to read, and I highly encourage you to do so, especially if you have listened to or attended a performance of Handel's masterpiece recently.

For me, the highlight of Yancey's piece is his reflection on why Handel's Messiah could not rightly end with the ever-lively and stirring "Hallelujah!" chorus. He begins by explaining that many still speculate that when King George I attended the premiere of the production, he rose to his feet at the singing of the "Hallelujah!" chorus out of the mistaken assumption it had reached its conclusion. Apparently his mistake also continues to be repeated by novice audience members today. "Who can blame them? " says Yancey. "After two hours of performance, the music seems to culminate in the rousing chorus. What more is needed?"

By way of an answer, Yancey breaks down the Messiah's finale and eloquently illustrates the 'more' that is needed--not just in Handel's classic oratorio, but in Lord's masterpiece of achieving salvation for His children through the sacrifice of His son. He writes:

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.

I recently heard an anecdote about Handel during his creation of the Messiah. One day, while Handel was working in his room while his assistant was trying to shout for his attention. He called and called for Handel for several minutes but received no response. Finally, the assistant walked over to Handel's room, where he found the composer in tears. "What's wrong?" he asked. Handel then held up the score to the "Hallelujah" movement and said, "I thought I saw the face of God."

A powerful story indeed. And yet, it's worth noting that, even after Handel apparently felt as if he had glimpsed God's splendorous face, he continued on to write the third and final chapter to his musical creation. He knew the face of God could not be fully revealed even in the most beautiful of earthly choruses. His classical masterpiece acknowledges that while our world rightly rejoices in the God who is with us (and who suffers with us), it also aches for the 'more' of our Saviour's return.

This is the eternal 'more' that all of us, including our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters, look towards--not only now, in this time of Christmas celebration, but always. Together we lean into Christ's light in joyful anticipation of the day when our afflictions will cease and we will be rewarded with the finale that Christ has deemed worthy for His faithful.

Until then, our cries of joy and of sorrow all culminate in the same heartrending chorus: Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!


Lawrence said...

How wonderful - Thank you Adele.


Jim said...

Maranatha! Amen.
Thank you, Adele.