I’m considering writing a new book: The Gospel According to George. This would be a short book aimed at music lovers from non-Christian or post-Christian cultures who enjoy Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, but have no idea what it is about.
“Comfort ye. Comfort ye my people,” Handel begins, quoting Isaiah chapter 40. But why do the people need comfort? Why is the cry of one in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” such good news?
I recently participated in a Messiah sing-along in beautiful Bettell Chapel at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. The soloists were students getting valuable experience. The Yale Symphony Orchestra accompanied and all us former musicians and enthusiasts (with a little help from the Yale Glee Club members scattered among us) sang our hearts out.
The woman next to me was a believer from Singapore. “Do all these people believe what they are singing?” she asked with awe in her voice.
Unfortunately, I had to tell her no. To most it was merely glorious music whose text might have been “Tra la la” (or perhaps “Fa la la” at this time of year.) Even the director that day in New Haven only referred to “this magical time of year” and not to the Christ whose glory Handel proclaims. Handel would have been shocked.
I know my colleagues in Japan and Italy and elsewhere invite friends to Christmas parties in December, where no one thinks you are pushy to explain the significance of the holiday in the Christian tradition. So why not a book that would explain what George Frederick Handle was thinking when he chose these moving texts and set them to such glorious music?
We are most familiar with Part 1 of The Messiah, the Christmas portion, although we usually stick the beloved “Hallelujah” chorus in there too. “Hallelujah” really comes from the Easter section because the gospel according to George doesn’t end with a baby in a manger. The comfort promised in the first recitative was not because we needed another baby, but because we needed a Savior.
In Part 2 the baby grows up, and Handel tells us to “Behold the Lamb of God” who “was despised.” He “bore our griefs”, and “with his stripes we are healed,” all heart-rending pieces of music. Only after “He was cut off from the land of the living” do we get to the resurrection and that glorious “Hallelujah.”
Part 3 looks forward to the promises whose fulfillment we still await. “I know that my Redeemer liveth and on the earth again will stand”; “The trumpet shall sound”; and that last glorious “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” that evokes the chorus of heavenly angels, thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.
The gospel according to George is full of promise for me personally too—“Oh death, where is thy sting?”; “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
So as you listen to beautiful music this Christmas season, may you hear not only lovely melodies and intricate harmonies. May you hear good news that goes deep into your soul: Messiah lives.