Advent & Christmas music

The Messiah

When the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra announced its concerts for the holiday season, there was one that I absolutely could not miss: Handel’s Messiah, performed at the diocese cathedral. I purchased tickets immediately, not even knowing how I’d make the one-and-a-half-hour drive during Friday night rush hour.

That problem was solved for me, as I wound up not being able to make that particular performance. But the NJSO was very helpful in exchanging my tickets for another venue closer to home. Not at a cathedral, alas, but still the Messiah.

I’d never listened to the piece in its entirety, nor live and in person. I didn’t know the lyrics, only that they were Biblically-based. It’s a Christmas classic, a tradition for many, and from the first resounding notes you understand why.

This is the type of Advent celebration I had been searching for, the music sweeping up to my balcony seat in the auditorium. For Part I, I merely listened. I didn’t even know the words were listed in the program, and perhaps that was a better way to start. To rest, and to listen. When I finally did turn to the program, I learned that this piece isn’t merely about Jesus’s birth.

It’s of God’s glory. His victory. And the prophecy of His coming, both in Bethlehem and in the end times.

A prophecy declared in Isaiah, which then moves to the actual event of His birth in the New Testament.

As I read the program notes during intermission, I learned of the tradition of standing during the Hallelujah chorus. That was a neat little thing, but as Part II began I realized why: we always stand. We stand during the alleluia.

I got a little misty-eyed.

As I read along to the verses, there was a gradual shift from the joy of Christmas to something even more important—the prophecy of his rejection. The torture, the death. Then, gloriously, the resurrection. I wondered, “Why is this a Christmas tradition?” Handel used the verses from Isaiah, rather than texts from the New Testament. All of Messiah is the prophecy, rather than a story of past events. Even the most famous Hallelujah isn’t about Christmas; it’s about His ultimate victory. He shall reign for ever and ever. This is the joy of Easter!

The Messiah is nearly three hours long. By that point, with many pieces, you’re a little restless. You just want to get up and go home. But when the trumpet sounded in Part III, I wasn’t ready for the end that was soon to come. It sang with the glory of Revelation. With the promises of God and His perfect kingdom. I loved sitting up high in the balcony to receive the sound of celebration.

When we left the auditorium, there was a light mist. I hardly felt the late hour, because the music still resonated. “I want to make this an Advent tradition,” I said, despite the driving Easter message. Because Advent—the new liturgical year—is the start of His story. We are in the time of the prophecy, awaiting the coming Messiah.

Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. —Revelation 5:13

Amen.