For many years, my family’s favorite Christmas tradition was attending a live performance of the Messiah. Like so many good things that eventually come to an end, it was discontinued by the concert producers—no explanation given—so that was that. We tried watching it on DVD, but, as I’m sure you can imagine, it wasn’t quite the same. Even with quality speakers, there’s something about a pipe organ vibrating the floor under your feet that can’t be replicated in your den.
After many years of missing the pleasure, some friends invited us to a performance this year here in Charlotte. Wonderful wouldn’t begin to describe the experience, which included both parts of the oratorio.
Did you know that Handel began writing the music on August 22, 1741 and completed his work on September 14th? Some have attributed this seeming miracle to divine inspiration, but the truth is that Handel wrote prodigiously his entire career, churning out operas, oratorios, and church music like widgets on an assembly line. Of course, we’re talking highly prized widgets here.
The New Music Hall in Dublin enjoyed the first performance of the Messiah, where crowds gathered and offered effusive praise. That was not to be the case in London. A controversy broke out over the idea of such sacred music being desecrated by its performance in a secular venue. After much back and forth, the Messiah’s English debut received lackluster reviews.
But time did heal the wound as it took on a life of its own in the charitable world, raising handsome sums for hospitals and infirmaries and orphanages, becoming the chief work used in charitable fund raising during this time period. One of Handel’s contemporaries put it this way:
It has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan, and enriched succeeding managers of the Oratorios, more than any single production in this or any country.
A little known fact about the Messiah concerns its evangelistic purpose. At the time of its writing, deism was increasing exponentially across Europe, both inside and outside the church. A gentlemen named Charles Jennens wrote the words (libretto) to the oratorio before Handel was asked to write the music. Jennens, a devout Christian, had lost his brother to suicide after the young man came under the influence of deism.
Jennens and other concerned believers put their pens to work in combating this error, reaffirming the historic Christian faith, i.e., the deity of Christ, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, and other foundational doctrines. In weaving the Scriptures together that would form the Messiah, Jennens joined pastors, poets, and pamphleteers in a defense of the faith while at the same time bequeathing to us the unfolding cosmic drama of our glorious redemption through the long-awaited Messiah in three musical acts.
Following Handel’s death, the Messiah continued its growth in popularity and influence, reaching people and places Handel and Jennens never imagined. The great pastor and hymn writer John Newton, on the 90th anniversary of the Calvin Oratorio Society, wrote the following appraisal:
The Messiah—executed in so masterly a manner by persons whose hearts as well as their voices and instruments were tuned to the Redeemer’s praise, accompanied with the grateful emotions of an audience duly affected with a sense of their obligations to his love—might afford one of the highest and noblest gratifications of which we are capable in the present life.
Duly affected by the high and noblest gratification in this present life—yes, that’s it—that’s the gift of the Messiah. And in the words of another German, Martin Luther, I do believe that “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”
Last Sunday, a group from our church took that great treasure—in this case Christmas hymns and carols— to some of our local nursing homes. It’s something we do every year, hoping to be a blessing to these dear folks, but the truth is we are the ones who end up super blessed. We may not have measured up to Handel, but I think he would have given us a thumbs up.