A Lasting Legacy of Handel’s Messiah

Two favorite Christmas traditions of mine are 1) read Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, Easton Press, 1992; and 2) listen to Handel’s Messiah. Neither of which I actually did this past Christmas. Willis’ Doomsday Book is a SciFi, time travel novel involving a history student attending Oxford University around 2050 who wants to travel back in time to explore 14th century English society in the Oxford environs just prior to the local outbreak of the Black Death, which occurred about 1348. And also attend a local celebration of the 1320’s Christmas Eve mass. The tale explores to a marvelous degree what it could have been like to live 700 years ago. My second time reading it was just after the outbreak of Covid-19 in the USA, which added another level of being absorbed into the story.

As for the oratorio of Handel’s Messiah, what can be explained? It is one of the finest works of composition Western Civilization has produced. I indulged my love for this work by buying, first, the book The Making of Handel’s Messiah, by Andrew Gant, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2020. And after finishing that, purchasing the book, George Frideric Handel, by Paul Henry Lang, W.W. Norton & Company, 1966. The former volume is a slim, concise but learned description of the events surrounding the oratorio’s composition. Highly recommended. The second is a scholarly work, more textbook than light reading, but an important description of the man and his times and musical experience.

And so it occurred to me that of all the fame and acclaim Handel’s Messiah has earned since its initial performance in 1742, one of its most important effects concerns Biblical prophesy. Namely the statement Jesus makes as recorded by Matthew, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Mat. 24:14) It struck me that one of most powerful ways the Gospel is preached to the world has been through the performance of the Messiah in the last centuries.

Just take a look at the the libretto of the piece, furnished to Handel by Charles Jennens. Fifty-three sections of text all pulled from the Bible. And all describing the Gospel in detail. The creation of man, his fall from grace which created an unbridgeable chasm between man and God, the effects of sin on all cultures, the solution entailing God incarnate in Jesus Christ who became the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and finally the resurrection of believers to the glory of eternal life.

If this masterpiece did not garner the praise that history has shown it would merely have been relegated to the shelves where millions of other “religious” works have collected dust. But something remarkable occurred with this Handel opus. Not very long after its first public performance, British society started annual performances. The result, if we fast forward to the 21st century, is that every Christmas the Messiah is performed around the world. The ironic thing to me is that the odds are the majority of performers of this piece are not believers! They are simply lovers of music who enjoy playing or singing a most remarkable piece of music, that just so happens describes in detail what the Gospel (and the Christmas season) is really all about. G.F. Handel’s most famous work is being used as an instrument to spread the Word of God among the world. As the prophet Isaiah states in the Spirit, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” (Is. 55:11)

[Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible © 1995]

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