For whatever reason, it’s not often these days that anybody tries to convert me to Christianity. I try not to take it personally. For any evangelists out there interested in taking advice from this heathen UU wizard, I’ll share a secret: there’s a guy out there who successfully converts me a few times every year. His name is George and he died in 1759.
Such is the power of music.
There’s a legend about composer George Frideric Handel, that upon completing the “Hallelujah” chorus from his Messiah he was found alone with tears streaming down his face. “I’ve seen all of heaven before me,” he explained, according to the story. Most people insist that this never happened, which may be so, but does it matter? I mean, have you listened to it? Really listened? Of course he saw all of heaven, and he didn’t just see it, he found a way to share it in a way we too can understand. Such a thing enters this world one of two ways: either our friend George saw a heaven that exists objectively, or he created it himself. Either way, it exists now. I’m definitely not just talking about that chorus, either, but the whole of the epic work. I’m serious – so serious that every time I listen to it, really listen to it, I become convinced. Converted. I go completely Christian. Every time.
Obviously, it doesn’t exactly stick…or does it?
After our magnificent mystical Advent Eve experience the night before, during which we were blessed to hear excerpts from that very work performed by community members in our own church, followed in turn by that explosion of collective ritual meaning that was Peterborough’s first Lantern Parade, Kellie and I marked the first Sunday of Advent at Symphony Hall. It was the Handel and Haydn Society’s 200th annual Messiah performance. We sat in the nosebleeds, with an obstructed view to boot – way up on the second balcony so far forward that we couldn’t see the third of the stage that was closest to us. That really doesn’t matter when you’re at Symphony Hall. We had a perfect view of conductor Bernard Labadie and Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and there were no deficiencies whatsoever when it came to sound – which was, after all, our reason for being there.
The first notes of the instrumental prelude sound, seemingly primordial in their power even before the action begins, and the tears come to my eyes. Like a reflex. I was a Believer again, easy as a doctor bopping a knee with a mallet, and this too seems to me a fitting way to kick off Advent.
This is neither magic nor direct divine intervention – though I certainly believe in both – but the nature of music itself. Sound, when arranged in certain ways, moves the spirit. It transports us, it elevates us, it purges us, it heals us. Sometimes it teaches us. The reason I am so moved by Handel’s oratorio is not fundamentally different from the reason I am moved by the ritual of a properly structured Grateful Dead concert. The sounds – in both cases, a complex combination of words and wordless notes – have been constructed in such a way as to allow for the experience of transcendence, if only while the sounds themselves endure. This can be said, on the one hand, to be a material phenomenon, but I also think it’s overly reductive to wave it all away as “merely neurological” – especially in that nihilistic, just-an-evolutionary-accident sort of way some people are prone to.
The Messiah, to state the obvious, tells the story of Jesus. It does so in three parts. The first covers the broader Nativity story, the second gets heavy with the passion, death, and resurrection. The final part, to paraphrase something I heard WCRB host Chris Voss say the other night, describes the world made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
I was very familiar with this story and indeed all of its attendant theology long before I was familiar with this music, but Handel succeeds where your average pamphleteer will fail. His sounds bypass my mind, with its filters, with its guard always up, and they speak directly to the heart and the soul, where it can really be heard and felt. Even the words, many of which are from fairly obscure works of biblical prophecy and don’t necessarily make sense in a way that tells a narrative story, come to make their sense in a completely different way, a way related to but at times distinct from their literal meanings.
Again, this is what we get from the Grateful Dead. It’s what I got a bit later in the season, on the night of the solstice itself, when my wife sang in a magnificent solstice ritual – a modern pagan cantata if not quite an oratorio – also hosted at our church down the road. Led by the brilliant Marybeth Hallinan – shoutout to Marybeth – we were transported into and through a matriarchal circle within which all the laws of the universe can be found in near perfection. Once again, transported by the arrangement of sounds, moved by the ability of the music to take both the nonverbal and the words and deliver it directly to the heart.
Each of these examples participates in this alchemy in their own specific way. In turn, the Messiah has its own specific way, its own specific purpose for its alchemy, and that’s where things get even more interesting. After all, in theory, by my own logic, the power of music might well be able to convince anyone of anything – and indeed it does! All the time. It may move us en masse in unison or, other times, such a collection of sound might be felt by all and yet convince each of those who feel it of something different, something unique to their individual psyches. It’s 100% true. Messiah, however, is not trying to convince listeners of any old random thing, nor is it particularly suited to individually-tailored reception. This is the tale of the Christ, of the humble savior who came at a time at which the condition of hope was listed as terminal, who took the side of the poor and the vulnerable, who challenged the corrupt religious and political officials, who voluntarily came as Divine Light in human form, through himself bringing the light at the moment of darkness, whose sacrifice and resurrection did that which we mere mortals cannot or would not, who taught us that the light never dies and always returns.
If I’ve argued it once, I’ve argued it a thousand times – this whole tale is near-universally archetypal but also particularly relevant to the dark days of this present age, even if you are not a Christian, even if you are a Dawkins-fawning atheist. You may think of me as a woo-head willing to believe any damn supernatural garbage that comes my way, but having been raised in an evangelical church and rejecting much of what I experienced as the core of that tradition, I had and sometimes still have pretty major barriers to “the Jesus Trip,” as our old friend Kesey called it. You’ll at least note that I discuss this season in astronomical/pagan terms at least twice as much as I rely on the Christian framework, even to this day. I find it much less challenging. One of the arguments put forward by the Messiah is that I’m missing a great deal if I decline to explore that framework, in all its riches, outright.
Resistance to this idea from an anti-religious perspective is to be expected. Beyond this, however, what I’ve found in my experience is that much of the resistance is also driven by an aversion to the idea of salvation – either that we don’t need to be saved or that we should not be looking to the Divine to save us but to ourselves. In many ways, I don’t even disagree. I don’t believe we need salvation due to “sin” – whether Original or just the imitation variety – or that our nature as beings is inherently foul or “fallen”. I’m pretty firmly in the “we’re all born just fine” camp. I don’t really like the idea of reliance on the Divine for solutions to problems that are pretty clearly human-driven and human-oriented. That can be a big abdication of responsibility. This is our mess and we should be the ones to clean it, not men in the sky and their illegitimate children. And seemingly against all evidence, I remain a believer in our capabilities as humans, in our potential to maybe get it together and rise us all up where we belong.
Isn’t that just it, though? “Against all evidence”? What evidence is there that we are capable of handling our own problems, or that we would choose to do so even if we were capable? Nothing happening currently or really in any of recorded history would even vaguely suggest such a thing. And while we’re on the subject of evidence, when the entire scientific community agrees we – all of us – are no joke on the brink of actual extinction, how much sense does it make to say, to begin with, that we don’t need saving. Clearly, we do! And clearly we’re not looking super likely to handle this, and many other things, on our own. We need no saving from sin, if sin refers to eating from the bad tree and thousands of more minor individual episodes of misbehavior. We are not fallen in the sense that we are born as bad and wretched creatures. But we are also the villains in our own story, the perpetrators of our own coming demise, and it is from our own selves and our own doing that we do, factually, need to be saved.
The position that dismisses the concept of salvation and rejects the notion that just maybe it has to come from outside of ourselves – that’s actually the faith-based position.
Whether it makes any sense to look in the direction of the Divine for a solution is another matter, of course. It’s entirely possible that we do so and receive no reply, but difficult to argue we’ve lost much in trying. Every year – at least that’s what it seems like, anyway – I refer to the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to illustrate this point. I lot of people don’t realize it’s about nuclear annihilation. Really. The two dudes responsible were writing the song in October of 1962, right smack in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Oh, and they wrote it in New York City, undoubtedly one of the first places that’d be obliterated if the Crisis went sour – and there was every reason to believe that it would. These guys really thought they could die at any moment. Talk about the moment of darkness!
The four simple verses of this song form a progression. The first two, once you have this context, are describing in artistic terms, well, a nuclear missile. The star with the tail as big as a kite, the song as big as an ocean. That’s DARK. The second two talk about the child known to have been born, the light emerging to fight back against this darkness. When you look at that last verse, when the king told the people everywhere that the child will bring us goodness and light, with the implication that ONLY the child can do so, you get it. It can be seen as both a prayer to the On High or a plea to humans like Kennedy.
The Cuban Missile Crisis did not end in global annihilation perpetrated by two maniacal superpowers with weapons nobody should have, which is great because otherwise it’s quite likely I would never have been born. But why? Was it the strength of the leaders of these two maniacal superpowers, who managed to successfully resist and thwart and outmaneuver the insane and suicidal brutality of their respective generals and other officials, who somehow each found a way to back down while saving face – acts of defiance, I would strongly suggest, which came at great cost to both men? Or was it actual Divine intervention? Is there a difference? Is one really THAT much more likely than the other?
We needed saving then and we need it now.
If I have my facts right, Handel’s Jesus oratorio was actually written and initially performed for Easter and/or Lent, which actually makes a lot of sense. In fact, as mentioned previously, this is a narrative that extends far beyond the Christmas story and even beyond Easter. Having said so, I get why we are drawn to listen during Advent, and it’s all about Part One, which lays out for us, in a stunning array, with its magic-beyond-words-and-mind, the perfect presentation of the Christmas story, down to every little sentiment, sometimes even down to the smells and the sounds of that time.
After the instrumental warm-up that opens the show, we are immediately brought to that age of darkness, where we are struck not as much by the darkness and gloom itself but by the all-pervading sense of anticipation hanging in the air like so many electrically charged particles. It’s a sense that the coming of the child of light isn’t and shouldn’t be considered a surprise, that in that moment of terminal darkness, we ought to expect the coming, because that’s how it always happens. This is very much an article of faith, but therein can be found Messiah’s argument for faith itself.
We know, in our anticipation that the coming transformation and salvation will not be an easy process, that the roof will seem to be collapsing in on us at times. “But who may abide the day of his coming,” asks the first solo typically, and with heart-rending beauty, performed by the counter-tenor, “and who shall stand when he appeareth?” And I mean, if such a thing were actually to transpire before our eyes, who could? This is followed immediately by the haunting chorus, “He Shall Purify” that is just mind-blowing in its sheer musical composition, the complex harmonies and wildly vehement repetition of the simple yet powerful words: “And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” Here, we really see George’s ninja skills, because he takes a passage that in reality has absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, its words even given his careful placement of them hardly making any sort of rational sense to the story – and yet when you hear it, you know exactly what it means.
We continue on through the story, reiterating that the people were in darkness and anticipated the coming of this light, anticipated the inevitability of all people coming around to it eventually. That’s some real faith right there. We come to the birth and we celebrate it, and then we come to the part with the shepherds – you know, the part that Linus, to whom I keep making references, actually quotes. And here, you’re actually brought right out to the fields and you straight-up experience the angelic host appearing in the sky to sing. In a bold act of transfiguration, in fact, the choir is at that moment transformed straight-up into that angelic host, and you can see it. Do you not know what it looks like to be a shepherd out in the middle of the night and have a giant choir of holy non-human beings show up and sing at you from the sky? Because I do. I see it every time, clear as day. Again, if angelic choirs didn’t exist before, they do now that Handel has brought them into the world.
The light has returned and we all must rejoice!
Things get a hell of a lot heavier in the second part. Returning from intermission, we are returned to our prior liminal state with a choral reiteration about the Lamb of God taking away the world’s sin – and then we dive right into the opposite end of this tale, to the backlash against Jesus and his light. When hearing the pleas of “He Was Despised” – that damn countertenor again! – we all mourn the fact that such a thing can ever be said to have happened at all. Christ, our saving light, is beaten and abused and profaned, and we ourselves are just kind of wandering around as aimlessly as lost sheep. We feel, if not with Jesus than very close to him, the pain, the rejection, the willing sacrifice despite it all as he is at last executed – a plot point which, it is worth noting, is not entirely obvious to the listener. The Death, Handel indicates to us, was never much of an event at all, because as soon as it was complete the resurrection began.
Now we all have a message of hope to preach. Now we may rejoice again, because we know the light can never die, that the potential for salvation is always with us. Jesus, the Christ, he who brought light from heaven back down to earth, can now – mission complete – ascend to heaven.
For those of you who don’t know, that’s what is going on in the concluding piece of Part Two – none other than the Hallelujah Chorus, which you’ve heard a million times and everyone says is good but possibly you may never have found interesting. Do yourself a favor – find a good recording (my favorite is the John Elliot Gardiner version) and put on some headphones and stop what you’re doing and let this thing wash over you.
As I said at the beginning, I know beyond all doubt that Handel did see all of heaven, because otherwise he could not so fully have shown it to me – and to all of us – in turn. You can see it, too.
People often mistakenly believe Hallelujah is the conclusion to the entire piece, which is understandable both for its sublimity and also the fact that, well, the Ascension to Heaven kind of is the end of what we usually think of as the Christ story. In the final part, shortest (though hardly the least!) of the three, Handel shows us otherwise. How can the story possibly be said to be complete without including the part where we the saved can now actually do something with the light that has come down to us in our moment of deepest despair.
This is the time for the soprano soloist to shine, starting with the opener, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” – which is indeed the starting point for the next phase, is it not? We know the light cannot be defeated, that it will never be snuffed out, that it will always return – with a vengeance. We know we are not doomed, that there is hope, that there is beatificaton – even if we choose to see it in a secular form – in store for all of us.
I’m a sucker for a good conclusion, especially when it’s a nice, tight, full-circle completion, and the end of this is the best conclusion I’ve ever encountered. It’s flawless. Masterful. (Dare I say divinely inspired?)
The bass soloist (in our case this year actually a bass-baritone) begins the close-out, telling us, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not sleep, but we shall all be chang’d, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet,” and typing those words out doesn’t even come close to conveying the weight of it. As it is sung, what is emphasized again and again is the phrase right smack in the middle. We shall be changed. And usually, as we know, we don’t want to be. But can we really argue that we don’t need it? “The trumpet shall sound!” he declares, moving on, backed with actual trumpets (in our case, real baroque trumpets with no keys or even finger-holes, which absolutely blew my mind), an instrument that is featured surprisingly little throughout the entire work, on but a handful of “tracks”. The corrupt must be made pure, what is mortal must be made eternal. That’s the next step. Death can be, and has been, and will be again, defeated.
A lively, impassioned duet between the countertenor and tenor tells us this very thing. “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?” for if the light cannot be quenched then death cannot sting and mortality cannot win. And though we’re at or past Pentecost on the calendar by this point in the story, we circle back around to the Christmas story because this is at the heart of the Advent.
When the chorus returns to sing the simple phrase, “But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it’s the fantastic, overlapping, multi-layered repetition of “BUT THANKS” that we hear loudest and clearest, the whole thing like a staggeringly beautiful act – the choir, beginning to wrap this thing up, is taking a moment to express its literal thanks, both to God and to the audience, not for listening courteously or for buying tickets and supporting the performing organization, but for sharing together this sacred, power-charged ritual, for collectively engaging in this three-hour journey through a tale that lives at the center of our souls.
The final solo, “If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?”, features the soprano accompanied initially by a consistent volume of organ and strings, which then diminish down to the minimum, with what sounds like barely a single violin playing along with her soaring notes. The words in the title itself of course represent a tremendously moving idea, but they’re probably the least significant ones in the positively HAUNTING piece, in which – as with “And He Shall Purify” and so many others before it – the sung words transcend themselves and their specific literal meanings. When she sings, absolutely soaring, “It is God that justifieth,” you just know exactly what it’s all about, her music now not just penetrating directly to the heart but doing so like a speeding arrow. It happens again with the repeated line, “Who makes intercession for us” somehow sung with a pathos that’s both confident in its triumph and solemn with repentance, with acknowledgment of our need – in all times – for the aid of the Divine. It takes my breath away and in that moment I have no doubt whatsoever that we have nothing without someone or some force or some light to intercede on our behalf. If we can do it on our own, we aren’t. We need the Intercessor. Indeed, as we sat there in that performance on that first Advent Sunday, soprano Lucy Crowe absolutely killed me with an impossible high note on “intercession” to end the solo. The air was just yanked right out from within me, my eyes agape and wet, my jaw just hanging open.
The full choir returns, absolutely pulling out all the stops, absolutely putting everything out there, reaching the potential seen earlier with Hallelujah and just blowing past it with the ultimate conclusion. The final part to feature full lyrics is a summary, a conclusion, a closing statement to the mystical, holy-as-shit argument that’s been made for the last nearly-three hours. “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 honor, and glory, and blessing.” All this with as much fervor as humans can muster, and then kicking it up once more with, “Blessing and honor, glory, and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” The message here is, of course, eternal.
Messiah ends with “Amen,” the full choir continuing after a brief pause to repeat the word “Amen” for three and a half minutes. We conclude as with a prayer, with Amen, and I promise you, you’ve never heard the word before if you haven’t heard this music. It starts (particularly in the Gardiner recording) following that brief silence, with understated Amens that rise and are joined by other voices that in turn begin understated and then rise, intertwining with one another, in this single ancient word now found all the cosmos and all that ever is or was or shall be – you can see and hear all of that. The strings interrupt our singers twice, as though to give the orchestra and the choir a chance to say goodbye via music, after which the voices soar to such heights that we barely notice the blaring trumpets and booming timpani; the singers have transfigured again to be the angels we all know for sure to exist – they’re right in front of us! – the baroque counterpoint seeming to swirl around and around in a great and terrible spiral, cascading upwards and outwards before coming back together for the soprano section’s final towering high note, cascading back down to a silence that’s held just long enough to really feel it hit you good, until they come back one last time with two last Amens, and it’s like they’re screaming it straight into your soul: AMEN, AMEN!
And thus it is finished, in a manner no less complete and comprehensive and real than the conclusion to this dancing universe itself, a finish that punches me full on in the chest, I can feel it knocking me backwards practically in a physical way. I am, in that moment, the guy who sits right now at over 4,300 words, completely speechless – like, unable to speak, unable to say anything. Unable to respond with words, because even though I’ve tried valiantly here, you can’t explain any of this or respond to it with words. From the depths of my soul, however, I am wholly and involuntarily compelled to respond another way: with a leap to my feet and a shout of joy. All is good, all is perfect, all is light, no matter what. I have pretty much the same reaction to the final image – like our Amens, displayed after a brief silent pause in darkness – in Malick’s Tree of Life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Malick’s film is about the same exact damn thing shown in a different configuration. It’s the image of God and it makes me leap from my seat in what might damn well be described as true and most sincere worship.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one. That Sunday, those with the best seats in the house could not restrain themselves and began to not just clap but CHEER before the final notes even concluded! Not at all typical decorum for a classical performance, but when the spirit moves you, the spirit moves you. Most likely, I was not the only convert in the room.
Let your spirit be moved. Feel the character of our age, not just its darkness and hopelessness but its latent anticipation, the anticipation inherent to knowing, somewhere deep down, that the turning point is coming; IT ALWAYS COMES! Take heart and have faith, whatever such things mean for you. Feel the light as it remains palpable even when invisible in the midst of the time of greatest darkness. Know that it imminently returns and be ready. Advent is not, despite what our calendar tells us, over. Advent is just now upon us. And as with this choral work that I can hardly even believe is a thing that exists, the story will not end with the salvation or the resurrection, with spring or with summer. The story will include the perfection of its third act, where all of us go forth into a world of new potential and power and love made possible by the gift of Divine light come down to meet us where we are.
Know that the potential and power and love are real and are coming and that they will be given to us. For each remaining year spent in the thrall of that latent anticipation, let the Advent season, the dark days about the winter solstice, be a reminder that redemption is yet on the way.
In such a spirit, may the blessings of the angels I can see so clearly, thanks to our long-dead friend George, carry you on as we take on the challenge, the opportunity, and the miracle that is 2019. Happy New Year.