During Advent, churchwarden Wil James will be offering a brief daily reflection on Part I of Handel’s Messiah. Here he introduces the endeavour and explains what this work has to offer us as we prepare for an unusual Christmastide:
Hope, expectation and fear are all emotions that have a more immediate resonance for us this Advent. In this extraordinary pandemic year, we have been reminded that for all our modern sophistication, our human challenges are not so very different from those of the people who lived on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean two or three thousand years ago. We watch, we wait and we pray.
Yet, by our contemporary standards, this Christmas season will, of necessity, be quite different from the blur of carols, mulled wine and conviviality that are expected in the run up to the 25th December. While those of us who are able will gather in church to observe the rituals of the season, it is inevitable that this year’s celebration will be lower key.
One thing that will almost certainly be missing from this Christmas period are the performances of the great Christmas oratorios, which are an important part of the holiday for many of us. During the recent national lockdown, I have revisited perhaps the greatest of the season’s oratorios, George Friedrich Handel’s Messiah and been reminded again that, apart from its musical brilliance, it is one of the greatest of all expressions of Christian faith in musical form.
Over the coming weeks of Advent, we will share a short daily reflection on the movements of Part I of Messiah, which are concerned with the Jesus’ advent. I encourage those who are familiar with it to revisit the work in more depth, and those who don’t know it, to take the time to discover its music and message. There are too many recordings to begin making a recommendation of which one you might listen to – many of you will have your own favourites. I have been listening to the 2008 recording made by The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers. My own thoughts are also indebted to the scholarship of Prof. Roger Bullard and his excellent Messiah: the Gospel according to Handel’s Oratorio.
Messiah was composed by Handel in a famous flurry of activity in the late summer of 1741, setting to music a libretto complied by Charles Jennens and based on the King James Version of the Bible and the psalter found in the Book of Common Prayer.
Yet, for the familiarity of its language, Messiah is a work that is complex and sometimes difficult to unpick. It is, of course, about Jesus the Messiah, but it is not the musical equivalent of a biopic. Jesus’ name never appears in the libretto of the oratorio and Jennens never quotes his words from the gospels directly. Instead, Messiah is a contemplation on what his coming to live among us signifies in terms of God’s relationship with humanity. A testament, if you will, to the faith as it was understood by its authors.
The message of the oratorio is presented not as a straight narrative, but as a series of vignettes picked from different passages of scripture to make a theological argument rather than to tell a story. We jump from scene to scene, sometimes incongruously. This structure means that Messiah skips chunks of the familiar story of Christ’s birth, life and death: there are no wise men, no presentation at the Temple, no crucifixion. Likewise, while it is based on the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, it doesn’t follow the calendar of readings or, always, quote scripture in full. It is not a replacement for our observance of the calendar of liturgy, but something more like a commentary on the great themes to be found there.
Part I of Messiah is such a suitable work for reflection during Advent because it deals with precisely those themes of hope, expectation and fear that run through the biblical message of this season. The oratorio draws heavily on the insight of the prophets, who sought to discern the action of God in their own time, but whose vision was often partial and sidelong. Just as we during Advent see through a glass, darkly, the oratorio pieces together its story through the voices of prophets who discerned aspects of God’s purpose and drew from it a sustaining hope.
When brought together, the patchwork of insights that form Messiah offer a profound insight into the nature of God’s love for his people. In turn, it prepares us to understand how this love would be expressed in transformative terms through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
As we prepare the celebrate Jesus’ birth, I hope the message contained in Messiah will bring you comfort and, on behalf of everyone at St Giles, may I wish you a peaceful Christmas.