“Just the Beginning”
I did something this Fall that I haven’t done in 35 years. I sang in the choir for a presentation of Handel’s Messiah, and it was definitely one of the highlights of my year. I enjoyed the challenge of singing in a really professional choir and needing to really practice to get all the minute details right to make for a really beautiful performance.
But the other thing I enjoyed about the experience was the opportunity to ponder the biblical texts of this Advent and Christmas season (and the Easter season too) and how Handel interpreted them and proclaimed them in his “Messiah.” (Back when I was in grade 8 and singing “Messiah” I wasn’t quite so focused on the theology of what we were singing.)
Just in case you’re not too familiar with Handel’s Messiah, you should know that the lyrics of every movement are straight from Scripture. Selecting almost exclusively prophetic texts, combined with verses from the Gospels, Handel tells and interprets the story of Jesus, the Messiah. Two main messages are clear: the incarnation of God, God coming to us in the Christ Child; and the salvation of us all accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Although Handel’s Messiah was performed last weekend by a secular orchestra, choir, and soloists who undoubtedly include people of many faiths and no faith, a colleague of mine who attended the performance described it as “a spiritual experience.” The message of God’s amazing love and sacrifice for us in Jesus Christ was sung and played, proclaimed and heard that night.
Early on in our rehearsals, we were practising the chorus, “Glory to God.” Just like we read tonight from Luke’s Gospel (although from a more modern translation), the soprano soloist sang:
“There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying…”
That was our cue for the choir to sing: “Glory to God, glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth… good will toward men.” (Yes, that’s the 16th century King James translation of the Bible. We would say “good will towards all people” today.
But during our rehearsal, I remember our director, Dorianna, asking us with a smile, “Is this a happy song or a sad song?” You know when your director asks such an obvious question that you’re probably not looking or sounding happy when you sing it. Perhaps you’re just concentrating too much on singing the right notes, and failing to get across the spirit of the message.
Well, I realized in that moment that I had something to offer to the choir to help them understand the message that we were preparing to proclaim together. I didn’t bother them with historical information and theological treatises on every text, but when the director invited me to share a little about the texts, I did so.
Here’s one of the things I wrote:
In “Glory to God” we are singing the words of the choir of angels that announced the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. They’re singing to the shepherds out in the fields, the ones who will be the first to visit the newborn King and his young parents. The angels are actually referred to in Scripture as the “heavenly host” and that word “host” actually makes them an army of angels. But they haven’t appeared to command people to glorify God or make peace on the earth. They have come to announce good news that will be for all the people. As Jesus is born into the world, the very presence of God among us, God is glorified and peace on earth is announced.
So, when we sing “And peace on earth,” minimizing vibrato as Dorianna directed, we are not angels demanding peace. Nor are we angels pleading for peace or hoping for peace among warring human beings or between God and people. We are angels announcing on behalf of God that in the Incarnation of Christ (God becoming human and coming to walk with us in the world) peace has arrived. God has made peace with us, and God is enabling peace between us. That peace is real and it is now. The feeling is more like “Ahhh… peace.”
When theologians speak about the Reign of God in the world (the state of the world in which peace, justice, and love prevail for all people) we talk about it being “already” and “not yet” – fully present in the world through Jesus, but also a growing thing as people of goodwill receive that peace and participate in growing that peace throughout the world. So we sing “Ahhhh… peace,” while at the same time we hear the call to participate in making that peace present for all people everywhere.
Thinking about it now, as we hear these glorious words from the angels at Christmas, I completely understand why the shepherds’ first response was to be terrified. I mean, it’s not just a happy song from some cute angels. It’s the proclamation from a heavenly army that God is changing up the world order. God is establishing a new realm in which the oppressive powers of the world are brought down for the good of all the people and the peace of the world.
And part and parcel with that announcement, the angel is telling them to go to the place where the new ruler has just been born. Go and see the child who will grow up to change the world. Get involved in this radical new thing that God is doing to turn the world upside down.
I wonder if you noticed another proclamation or big announcement in our readings tonight. The first one was in our reading from the prophet Isaiah about something God was doing about 700 years before the birth of Jesus.
Similarly, the people of that time were struggling with powerful oppressors and looking for some hope. The prophet was able to provide it with the promise of a new leader who would be born and who would become the kind of good, strong, wise, and capable ruler that the people so desperately needed.
The text is first of all about a ruler for God’s people in that time and place. But Christian interpreters, including Handel, have heard in the prophet’s description of the ruler a picture of the Messiah that Jesus came to be – not only for one People, but for the whole world.
We sang: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
It’s also a happy song. But more than that, it’s a song of hope. The child has been born, so God’s plan is already being put into action. But the world of peace with justice and love for all people is yet to be completed. One biblical commentator suggests that Isaiah’s words are less a celebration of the end of challenge, and more a celebration that the conditions for newness of life are upon or among us.
To me, it’s like the celebration of a graduation. You’re not so much celebrating the fact that you finished a program or completed a degree. You’re celebrating the opportunities that lie ahead because of that accomplishment, the hope that you have in forging ahead in your career and living out your vocation.
Or perhaps it’s like the celebration we had last week at the Regina airport when the Mathiang family finally arrived from Sudan. It wasn’t just a celebration of their safe arrival, but it was a celebration of all the possibilities that lie ahead for them in a place of safety and opportunity.
Like the shepherds, the new graduate or the newcomer family may experience some fear about the future. I think it’s pretty natural and normal for any of us to feel some anticipation and worry when we cannot yet see the future that God is preparing for us.
But that’s when we need to remember that God has already begun to put the plan into action. The angel announced: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” And the heavenly host chimed in singing, “Glory to God, glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace and good will towards all people.”
Our celebration of Jesus birth, our celebration of Christmas is just the beginning. It’s just the beginning of God’s plan to reach out to us and draw us back to God-self in love. It’s just the beginning of God’s work of saving us, enabled by the fact that God came to us in the incarnation.
I think that’s why Handel’s Messiah doesn’t stop after the Christmas story, even if most communities choose to present it at Christmastime. It goes on to tell of Jesus’ life and love, of his death, resurrection, and ascension. It doesn’t stop until Christ is seated upon the throne of God in heaven and his work is complete and we all say, “Amen.”
You and I still live in the midst of the “already/not yet” world in which God has come to us, but we still struggle to follow Christ, and our world still struggles to live into the fullness of justice and peace that God intends. But as we sang that long section of “Amens” at the end of the Messiah, it felt like a vision of the world to come that God promises to us – one where all the glory goes to God, and peace on earth and goodwill towards all people is accomplished.