Monday, December 3, 2012

'Messiah' complex

Nutcracker Princes, Amahl and his mom and prune-faced Scrooge are descending upon us again, as they do every Christmas, and no tradition endures more lastingly than Handel's "Messiah." On Sunday, the Charlotte Music Club performed the Advent portion of that oratorio for the 60th time, and I sang along with the basses for the first time since the early 1990s.

You can't sing great sacred music without at least thinking about God, whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof) may be. For the first time, I really considered what every word I was singing meant.

The initial word of the oratorio is "comfort." The final word of the Advent section is "light." Virtually every moment in between is an affirmation of glory or a shout of joy. The second part, which includes the scourging of Christ and the contemplation of evil, has darker moments -- though the chorus "All we like sheep (have gone astray)" has a jaunty tone for music contemplating our propensity to sin! The third portion deals with resurrection and salvation.

Librettist Charles Jennens selected biblical texts that depict a God who brings hope, who's patient with mankind. Except for a brief part near the end of the second section, where "the nations so furiously rage together" against God's anointed and the Lord is encouraged to "dash them in pieces, like a potter's vessel," humankind doesn't get rebuked or punished. Nobody's threatened with eternal damnation. Nobody gets  excluded from the good graces of the Lord or the church, unless he violently seeks exclusion himself.

Handel's musical "sermon" has been preached at Christmas (and frequently at Easter) for two and a half centuries. We're so used to it that we can sit through it without taking in the text, line by line. But we should bring a set of fresh ears every time to a message of compassion that's too rare in our modern world.