Many have asked me to post a little reflection I shared on Sunday before our wonderful festival choir sang portions of Handel’s Messiah. As we make our way through Advent at Calvary this year our theme is Lift Every Voice and Sing–each week we’ve been considering the songs of the nativity story, with Calvary members sharing special songs that have been important in their lives. It was my turn Sunday; my reflection follows:
My love affair with Handel’s Messiah began before I can really form distinct memories. Suffice it to say, the whole-all three parts of Handel’s Messiah-are the soundtrack that runs in the background my earliest memories of Christmas.
My parents can’t remember where they got it but our family was in possession of a recording of Messiah by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every Thanksgiving Dad would unearth the vinyl records, pull the first one out from its sleeve, lay it on the turntable and put the needle down, filling the whole house with the opening notes of the Overture.
While other kids were singing “Here Comes Santa Claus,” imagine me and my sister, ages 3 and 5, pirouetting around the living room singing: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” and “Rejoice greatly, oh daughter of Zion!”
Of course I didn’t know then the incredible story behind this music. The piece was written for a benefit concert, in which funds were being raised to pay off debts and release people from debtors’ prison, and after its debut Handel conducted the piece 30 more times for causes that fed the hungry and alleviated human suffering-it became the tradition of the piece and Handel’s objective in conducting it.
Handel composed the entire piece in three weeks, during which time he never left the house and barely ate or slept. For Handel this composition was a powerfully spiritual experience. He took snippets of scripture from the Hebrew text and wove them with the story of Jesus’ birth until, upon penning the final note he was said to have exclaimed, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.”
For me . . . I carried the echoes of “Behold the Lamb of God” and “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” along with me when I left home, learning very quickly that listening to Messiah all your life is kind of like the sneaky way your parents force you to ingest vegetables by serving you zucchini bread-you thought you were listening to beautiful music but in reality you were memorizing scripture. I sailed through Old Testament survey with Handel’s help, and I can never hear the beautiful prophecies of Isaiah read without the soaring melody rising in the background of my mind.
When I met a man I fell in love with, the first Christmas we dated I tentatively floated my need to hear Messiah and was pleased when he readily agreed to drive to the big city for a holiday production. My heart beat even faster when I sat next to him and heard his beautiful baritone singing along with the choruses-in the bass section’s part!
As we’ve created our own Christmas traditions together, Messiah is always there as the soundtrack in our family now, too. We don’t play it on dusty LPs anymore-we’ve graduated to CDs. But our kids know the words and melodies, too. I realized it this week when I picked up the kids from school, “For Unto Us a Child is Born” blaring on the car stereo. From the backseat I heard: “Man, I have had this song in my head all day long!”
Today you’ll hear parts of Messiah in worship. My appreciation for this beautiful music has grown by leaps and bounds as Cheryl has taught me to appreciate in even deeper ways the beauty of Messiah and the powerful story it tells. How fortunate I am to lift my voice and sing with this amazing choir and talented musicians the soaring notes of Handel’s Messiah, which recall love-the love of my family and the love of “the Great God Himself” as Handel said-in all its lavish expression.