There are many spectacular performance art productions we have the privilege of experiencing year after year during the holiday season – The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, The Grinch and more. But upon witnessing the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center this year, I am convinced that no other show could so truthfully enrapture it’s audience in the reality of Christmas. Handel’s gift of the oratorio Messiah is the complete amalgamation of all of the experiences, emotions, and significance of Christ’s life on earth. Handel conveys not only the birth of a child, but the gift of our one and only Messiah – birth, life, death, and resurrection all in one breathtaking work of art.
This visionary piece was written in the midst of a dark time in Handel’s life, full of despair, illness, poverty, rejection, and embarrassment. Once revered as London’s most important producer of opera, Handel had fallen victim to the changing trends of the music world, which had veered away from opera, leaving him nearly bankrupt by 1739. But, in true Christmas spirit, Handel’s gift was brought back to life when in the depths of his own poverty and despair, he accepted a request to compose a performance for a charity series in Dublin to benefit those in need. Messiah impregnated Handel, with the joy, rejection, death, and everlasting triumphant reign of our Savior Jesus Christ, and poured out from him in a new and enthralling format of an oratorio, which has permeated the spirits of millions of people year after year now for centuries. Handel was said to have told a servant in composing Messiah, “I did think I did see Heaven before me and the great God Himself!”
While this bold and revolutionary piece caused some controversy in allowing “actors of loose morals” to speak the words of the New Testament, I think Handel knew that it had to be done that way. As Jesus mingled with and showed compassion to the undesirables and sinners of his time to show them mercy and give them a taste of everlasting life, so Handel wanted these people to feel our Lord’s love inside of them by speaking the Word, singing His praises, and performing the songs of Heaven. Handel said, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.” And upon experiencing this performance, the one resounding thought I was left with, was the life-changing power of speaking the Word, performing the music of angels, and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through us in the form of art.
The first song in Messiah literally walks you down a path – the strings beckon you along the way with their bows supporting your back as you hear the words: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” At this point you are not quite sure where you are going, but you feel yourself put to work making a way in your heart for something great. The soloist brings power and the choir brings joy. The peaceful happiness builds as you learn why exactly you are preparing this way: “For unto us a Child is born…His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” And so the music physically zooms throughout the concert hall – an electric current that jolts everyone into sheer joy and excitement – that jittery feeling that fills us all when we are filled with the Christmas Spirit.
Part I transitions into Part II with the chorus singing “His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.” This contrasts how light the burden is that we carry when we follow Jesus, and we soon find out that our load is so light because Jesus is about to lift all the weight off our yokes and place it upon himself. “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” is echoed by the singers. Yet these words would fall flat on our deaf ears without the eerily enveloping cry of the orchestra. I think only a stringed instrument has the capacity to sing the despair, pain and rejection that Christ suffered in his lifetime. The words, “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,” pierces the hearts of all in the crowd, and fills their souls with, “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow.”
Then right in the midst of our drowning sorrow and compassion for our Lord – the trumpet sounds, the drum pounds, and the voices of many form together to sing the ever redeeming Hallelujah chorus, which has brought crowds to their feet for centuries.This is the ultimate victim to hero, underdog story and we all stand because it gives us hope for overcoming the pain, rejection, and sorrow in our own lives.
One of the most special aspects of Handel’s Messiah is that the story continues on after the Hallelujah chorus – as if to say, right in the midst of a most supreme joy: wait, there is more. Not only do we celebrate that Jesus has overcome his pain, but we learn why he did so and what it means for us. We are filled with the understanding of why Christmas is important. The chorus announces, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” The trumpet sounds from the heavens, a most pure and angelic sound, “We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” The finale is filled with tears of joy as the drums announce “Him that sitteth upon the throne.” And, we all stand to praise him.