A hush fell over the darkened auditorium as the lights dimmed in anticipation of the tradition set to unfold for the crowded room. At the head of each aisle at the back of the auditorium a choral member robed in burgundy began to walk toward the risers ascending on the stage while singing a medley of Christmas carols in a cappella. Each carried a battery- operated candle as they moved forward. A select group in the center aisle were robed in white.
As the nearly 150 – member choral group began to file into the eleven rows of seats on the risers, those in white robes formed a cross in the sea of burgundy robes. With everyone in place, the last carol began. As the strains of “Silent Night” began to echo through the room the choral members began to extinguish their candles beginning at the edges and moving toward the center where those robed in white formed the large cross. In the end as the humming of the carol continued only the candles in the cross remained lit.
The notes then began as the instruments played the overture to begin the memorable performance of Handel’s sacred oratorio, “The Messiah.” One might expect this was happening in a grand cathedral, but it was actually my high school auditorium where an exceptional choral director trained his young musicians to rise to exceptional skill in singing this classic work each December for many decades. The opportunity to participate was coveted and often alumni would join the current select a cappella choir made up of sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
It was a different time, a time when sacred musical selections were regularly included in the repertories of public-school choirs along with musicals, popular tunes, and assorted musical styles. It was a time when the choral director taught the significance of this great classical work by Handel and students knew and heard the scriptural lyrics leaping off of each page of the work.
All these years later those months of preparation for the performance and what we learned of the music and the story the music told still echoes in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who had this privilege. Though this oratorio is celebrated and sung by choruses and choirs with great orchestras in many places, this local tradition was unique.
One might wonder what Handel would have thought as these young musicians tackled this impressive work that he composed in three or four weeks between August and September 1741. What inspired such majesty or that of the text of words by the prominent librettist, Charles Jennens, for a planned first performance for Easter in 1742? Clearly, the scripture that flows on every page with all the glory of Handel’s crescendos must have been inspired by God to last and maintain such enthusiastic loyalty for nearly 280 years.
The pandemic of 2020 will leave stages silent of performances this year whether in orchestral series, university choral schedules or concerts by churches large enough to conquer the large work. Despite all the Christmas music played on numerous media all day and night, few will offer this complete work, but those who are caught up in its power in lyrics and sound will dust off recordings to enjoy as they reflect on the songs that echo from heaven.
The opening tenor solo from Isaiah 40: 1-11 brings good news in the words, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people; Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God…” How much we need his comfort this difficult year. And the good news doesn’t stop there as the first chorus begins, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed…” Oh, that we could see and sense that glory and focus on it rather than the other darker things that seek to overtake our thoughts.
As people of Advent the scriptures flowing on every line of this grand musical score should lift up our hearts and heads long before the first part of the oratorio ends. We must remember.
“God is the reason why we are living in the not yet.”Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative
Will you not awaken and rise up long before the end of the second part of the oratorio when the grand Hallelujah chorus begins?
That glorious chorus brought King George II to his feet in the 1743 London premiere of the oratorio and the rest of the audience joined him. So great was the impact that this tradition continues every time this end of the second part of the oratorio is sung.
But the message and the oratorio doesn’t end there even though not everyone has heard the entire work. Part 3 speaks of Easter and the Lord’s coming in the Advent yet to be in the choral works entitled “I Know My Redeemer Liveth,” “Since by Man Came Death,” “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery,” “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” and more, ending with “Worthy is the Lamb” with the grand progressions of “amen’s.”
This grand oratorio tells the Gospel to the strains of Handel’s composition and for many decades it was etched in the hearts of groups of high school choral groups in a small midwestern town in Ohio. The call of the Gospel – let us never forget, even in seasons of shadow and darkness – especially then.
“What matters is the call of the gospel, the promise of God, and your task of being faithful and patient in the present, ‘until it be thoroughly finished.'”N.T. Wright