Messiah, G.F.Handel (1741)
Many of us associate Handel’s Messiah with Christmas and with Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. However Handel did not write the Messiah as a piece of Christmas music. If you look carefully at the words of the Messiah in the libretto, the biblical text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, you will see that actually only the first part of the composition is related to the birth of Jesus. The second and third parts focus on his death, resurrection, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the final resurrection of all believers. You will also discover that the first performance of the Messiah occurred, not during Advent or Christmas, but in the Easter season. Handel’s masterpiece was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, 19 days after Easter. This was surely deliberate - if Handel had envisioned the Messiah as a piece for Christmas, it would have been introduced in this season. The libretto of the Messiah is, at heart, a presentation of the death and resurrection of Jesus: the core of the Easter message.
The lyrics of the Messiah are entirely from the Bible and, although the story of Jesus is a New Testament narrative, in many places the words in the Messiah come from the Old Testament. Moreover, the key events – the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus – are not told with New Testament texts, but with prophetic passages from the Old Testament. For example, the Messiah doesn’t include the words, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7). Instead, it celebrates, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” (Isaiah 9:6).
For so many centuries people have loved Handel’s Messiah, and for good reason. In fact, a reviewer of the first performance of this piece wrote, “The sublime, the grand, and the tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.”
Part I focuses on the birth and life of Jesus. It begins with prophetic promises of the birth of the Christ, many from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. These include, for example, the Alto recitative: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel: God with us” (based on Isaiah 7:14). The actual birth of Jesus is revealed, not through the words of Luke 2, but through the prophecy from Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born . . . .” Then the Messiah narrates the experience of the shepherds outside of Bethlehem, completing the birth story.
The next section of Part I describes the ministry of Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecy, “Then the eyes of the blind be opened. . .” (based on Isaiah 35:5); “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (based on Isaiah 40:11). Part I finishes with the invitation of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-29, though this has been rephrased into the third person, “Come unto him all ye that labour” rather than “Come unto me.” The final chorus of Part I celebrates the fact that “His yoke is easy and his burden in light” (based on Matthew 11:30).
Part II focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus, ending with the glorious celebration of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” This part jumps immediately to the Passion of Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” (based on John 1:29). We are prepared for Jesus’ death by Isaiah’s prophecies of the Suffering Servant: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (based on Isaiah 53:4-5). As in the case of Jesus’ birth, his actual death isn’t narrated using texts from the New Testament Gospels. Instead, Isaiah 53:8 delivers the news of Jesus’ demise: “He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of thy people was he stricken.”
The Easter section of the Messiah begins in Part II. It delivers the good news of the resurrection in a manner similar to its telling of the birth and death of Jesus. The resurrection isn’t described so much as alluded to through prophetic Scripture, in this case, Psalm 16:10: “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell, nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.” Following this sweet soprano confession, the whole chorus bursts forth with Psalm 24:7-10: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” Now, all of heaven is being summoned to receive the risen Christ into glory.
As Part II draws to a close, the libretto connects the victory of Jesus with the sending out of preachers into the world. Thus the Messiah blends the story of Easter into the story of the Pentecost, just as Eastertide bridges Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. Part II ends most gloriously, with the beloved “Hallelujah Chorus.” Yes, it comes, not in the Christmas section, but in the Passion/Resurrection/Pentecost section. “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” not in the birth of Jesus, but in his death and resurrection. This will be communicated to the world, so that God “shall reign for ever and ever.”
Part III of Handel’s Messiah returns to the theme of resurrection, at first citing the wonderful text from Job: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” (based on Job 19:25). From this confession that Christ the Redeemer lives, Part III of the Messiah transitions into a look at the final resurrection of all people, using many verses from 1 Corinthians 15. It begins by connecting the resurrection of Christ with our own future resurrection: “For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep” (based on 1 Corinthians 15:20). From this point onward Part III includes some of the most joyful and triumphant music of the Messiah, using such bible words as“The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (based on 1 Corinthians 15:52); “O Death, where is thy sting?” (based on 1 Corinthians 15:55) and “But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ” (based on 1 Corinthians 15:57)
The final chorus of the Messiah is one of absolute worship and adoration: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.” (based on Revelation 5:12-13). After this, how could Part III possibly end except with 3 minutes of “Amens”!
What is interesting bout the Messiah is that it doesn’t end with the empty tomb or the resurrection appearances. In fact, these aren’t even mentioned. Rather, Handel carries the story of Easter forward to Pentecost and the preaching of the word, and even as far as the final resurrection of all people. Thus, the Messiah is not an Easter Sunday composition so much as an Eastertide masterpiece. It points us to the broader and deeper implications of Christ’s resurrection, while leading us before the throne of God where we offer “blessing and honour, glory and power” to the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.