December 20: On "Messiah"

The sermon on December 20 was a performance of several sections of Part I of Handel's "Messiah." Here is the introduction I gave before we sang.

On Messiah

Advent IV; December 20, 2015

Text of portions of part I of Messiah

Music by G. F. Handel, book compiled by Charles Jennens

Messiah was composed as a piece for the theater, not for church. George Frideric Handel wrote operas, big theater-pieces, until the popularity of opera began to wane and the money began to dry up. Then he turned to oratorio, stories told by chorus, orchestra, and soloists without the staging. It had all the drama of opera, but wasn't as expensive. And the words were in English rather than Italian.

Messiah was peculiar, however. The soloists don't sing the roles of characters in the story; we don't have a soprano singing the role of Mary and a bass singing the role of the angel Gabriel or the prophet Isaiah. That's how most of Handel's oratorios were, but this one was different. The singers don't tell the story; they sing words that reflect on what the story means. The musicologist Donald Burrows pointed out that if you don't already know the story, then the oratorio doesn't make any sense.

It's a little peculiar that in the United States we usually sing it in December, when it premiered in the spring and all of Handel's annual performances were in the spring. Perhaps that's because we tend to emphasize Part I, which tells about the coming of the Messiah; Part II is about the Messiah's suffering, death, and resurrection and Part III is about the glorification of the Messiah. The chorus "Hallelujah!" is from Part II. It's not about the birth of Jesus; it's about the triumph of Jesus the Messiah over all the powers that oppose him. To put it in context:

      He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.

      Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;

      Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.

      Hallelujah!

And yet…

The first performance, in April 1742, was a charity benefit in Dublin, for three worthy causes, including debt relief for prisoners. When Handel revived it in 1749, and began to give annual performances every spring, it was to benefit a London hospital for children. From the first, people performed Messiah not for their own benefit but to benefit others. And another thing: when Charles Jennens compiled the story, using the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, he had a specific purpose in mind: to combat the rising tide of Deism, and to insist that God does intervene in human life, and that God has intervened in his Messiah.

Hallelujah.


Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Benson Presbyterian Church

Omaha, Nebraska

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