For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6, King James Bible
Every family has its Christmas traditions. Our family opens one present at Christmas. This year, it was Mom’s new laptop computer, complete with wireless mouse and golden retriever puppies mousepad. Usually, Mom decorates her tree early on in the season. But as she’s gotten older (she’ll be 87 next month), even though it’s a very small tree, she’s found the task more tiring.
She came by my place hoping I had small string of lights. Alas, mine were burnt out. She didn’t know where to go for a small string. So I replied, “Mom, CVS has them – right down the road here.” To her surprise, she found the lights. My brothers and I were due at her house for dinner and the laptop premier. When I got there, she still hadn’t put the tree up. So after I ate, I had her sit down in the living room with her tea and I decorated it for her. It will probably be my task from now on, and a enjoyable task it. She has the cutest little ceramic, light-up train set.
Then we got her set up with her laptop. As you all know, it takes awhile. I got it running for her, uploaded the wireless mouse and all that. Then my younger brother got the laptop linked up to his router. In the meantime, my older brother arrived, and showed her some financial sites on the web that he knew would interest her, so she’d be more willing to try to learn how to use the mouse.
Finally, we got through the mouse lessons. They went better than I expected – my older brother was right – seeing financial internet sites motivated her. By 11 p.m., we had Mom plugged into the 21st century.
When we were all still living under Mom’s roof, the Christmas morning ritual was to listen to “Joy to the World” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” while we drank our eggnog and waited for everyone to gather around the nativity before opening our presents. My mother reminded us of who He was and that was He whom we had to thank for whatever blessings we received that Christmas. Some Christmases were scanty because we were poor, though never as poor as my mother’s family during the Depression.
So I lit up my angel nativity scene and then the Christmas tree this morning, put on the Mormon Tabernacle singing “Joy to the World” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” and thanked Him for the blessings I received this Christmas, particularly that of having enough werewithal to be generous to other people and see the joy on their faces. And of course, I have my new orchestra bells, sitting under the tree with a big silver ribbon on the case. My very own bells, at last!!
We play “The Hallelujah Chorus” for Christmas everywhere in churches and school concerts (or at least, we did when I was in high school). The entire libretto is taken from the Bible; it’s all bible verses, set to music. Handel was a word-painting composer – when he wanted to musically he describe a mountain for instance, he would have singers and/or instrumentalists literally climb up the musical scale, and then come back down the steep grade.
“The Hallelujah Chorus” was written for the middle section of “Messiah,” not the first, and is taken from the Book of Revelations, when The Messiah shall return to Earth in triumph to claim his crown. “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is part of the first section, celebrating Jesus’ birth.
According to Wikipedia: “Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by George Frederic Handel, and is one of the most popular works in the Western choral literature. T he libretto by Charles Jennens is drawn entirely from the King James and Great Bibles, and interprets the Christian doctrine of the Messiah. “Messiah” (often but incorrectly called The Messiah) is one of Handel’s most famous works. The Messiah sing-alongs now common at Christmas usually consist of only the first of the oratorio’s three parts, with Hallelujah (originally concluding the second part) replacing His Yoke is Easy in the first part.
Composed in London during the summer of 1741 and premiered in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742, it was repeatedly revised by Handel, reaching its most familiar version in the performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital in 1754. In 1789, Mozart orchestrated a German version of the work; his added woodwind parts, and the edition by Ebenezer Prout, were commonly heard until the mid-20th century and the rise of historically informed performance.
Messiah presents an interpretation of the Christian view of the Messiah, or “the anointed one” as Jesus the Christ. Divided into three parts, the libretto covers the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ, the birth, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and finally the End Times with the Christ’s final victory over death and sin.
Although the work was conceived for secular theatre and first performed during Lent, it has become common practice since Handel’s death to perform Messiah during Advent, the preparatory period of the Christmas season, rather than in Lent or at Easter. Messiah is often performed in churches as well as in concert halls. Christmas concerts often feature only the first section of Messiah plus the “Hallelujah Chorus,” although some ensembles feature the entire work as a Christmas concert. The work is also heard at Eastertide, and selections containing resurrection themes are often included in Easter services.
The world record for an unbroken sequence of annual performances of the work by the same organization is held by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, in Melbourne, Australia, which has performed Messiah at least once annually for 157 years, starting in its foundation year of 1853.
The work is divided into three parts which address specific events in the life of Christ. Part One is primarily concerned with the Advent and Christmas stories. Part Two chronicles Christ’s passion, resurrection, ascension, and the proclamation to the world of the Christian message. Part Three is based primarily upon the events chronicled in the Book of Revelation. Although Messiah deals with the New Testament story of Christ’s life, a majority of the texts used to tell the story were selected from the Old Testament prophetic books of Isaiah, Haggai, Malachi, and others.
In the summer of 1741 Handel, depressed and in debt, began setting Charles Jennens’ Biblical libretto to music at a breakneck speed. In just 24 days, Messiah was complete (August 22 – September 14). Like many of Handel’s compositions, it borrows liberally from earlier works, both his own and those of others. Tradition has it that Handel wrote the piece while staying as a guest at Jennens’ country house (Gopsall Hall) in Leicestershire, England, although no evidence exists to confirm this. It is thought that the work was completed inside a garden temple, the ruins of which have been preserved and can be visited.
It was premiered during the following season, in the spring of 1742, as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street near Dublin’s Temple Bar district. Right up to the day of the premiere, Messiah was troubled by production difficulties and last-minute rearrangements of the score, and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift, placed some pressure on the premiere and had it canceled entirely for a period. He demanded that it be retitled “A Sacred Oratorio” and that revenue from the concert be promised to local hospitals for the mentally ill. The work premiered April 13 at the Music Hall in Dublin, and Handel led the performance from the harpsichord, with Matthew Dubourg, an Irish violinist, conductor and composer, conducting the orchestra. He had worked with Handel as early as 1719 in London.
Handel conducted Messiah many times and often altered the music to suit the needs of the singers and orchestra he had available to him for each performance. In consequence, no single version can be regarded as the “authentic” one. Many more variations and rearrangements were added in subsequent centuries—a notable arrangement was one by Mozart, K. 572, translated into German. In the Mozart version, a French horn replaces the trumpet on “The Trumpet shall sound,” even though Luther’s Bible translation uses the word “Posaune,” German for trombone.
The libretto was compiled by Charles Jennens and consists of verses mostly from the King James Bible, the selections from the book of Psalms being from the Great Bible, the version contained in the Book of Common Prayer. Jennens conceived of the work as an oratorio in three parts, which he described as “Part One: The prophesy and realization of God’s plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah.” “Part Two: The accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus, mankind’s rejection of God’s offer, and mankind’s utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty.” “Part Three: A Hymn of Thanksgiving for the final overthrow of Death.”
These “acts” may, in turn. be thought of as comprising several scenes:
Part I: The Annunciation
Scene 1: The prophecy of Salvation
Scene 2: The prophecy of the coming of the Messiah
Scene 3: Portents to the world at large
Scene 4: Prophecy of the Virgin Birth
Scene 5: The appearance of the Angel to the shepherds
Scene 6: Christ’s miracles
Part II: The Passion
Scene 1: The sacrifice, the scourging and agony on the cross
Scene 2: His death, His passing through Hell, and His Resurrection
Scene 3: His Ascension
Scene 4: God discloses His identity in Heaven
Scene 5: The beginning of evangelism
Scene 6: The world and its rulers reject the Gospel
Scene 7: God’s triumph
Part III: The Aftermath
Scene 1: The promise of redemption from Adam’s fall
Scene 2: Judgment Day
Scene 3: The victory over death and sin
Scene 4: The glorification of Christ
Much of the libretto comes from the Old Testament. The first section draws heavily from the book of Isaiah, commonly believed by Christians to prophesy of the coming of the Messiah. There are few quotations from the Gospels; these are at the end of the first and the beginning of the second sections. They comprise the Angel going to the shepherds in Luke, “Come unto Him” and “His Yoke is Easy” from Matthew, and “Behold the Lamb of God” from John. The rest of part two is composed of psalms and prophecies from Isaiah and quotations from Hebrews and Romans. The third section includes one quotation from Job (“I know that my Redeemer liveth”), the rest primarily from Corinthians I.
Choruses from the New Testament’s Revelation are interpolated. The well-known “Hallelujah” chorus at the end of Part II and the finale chorus “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” (“Amen”) are both taken from Revelations.
While modern performances of Messiah are most common during the Christmas season, the uncut text of the work devotes more time to the Passion and Resurrection than to the Christmas narrative. Nevertheless, it is common for Advent performances to include only the first 17 numbers of Part One and then substitute “Hallelujah,” the conclusion of Part Two, for “His Yoke is Easy,” the final chorus of Part One.
The most famous movement is the “Hallelujah” chorus, which concludes the second of the three parts. The text is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelations:
“And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.’” (Revelation 19:6)
“And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.’” (Revelation 11:15)
“And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, ‘KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.’” (Revelation 19:16)
In many parts of the world, it is the accepted practice for the audience to stand for this section of the performance. The tradition is said to have originated with the first London performance of “Messiah,” which was attended by King George II. As the first notes of the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus” rang out, the king rose to his feet and remained standing until the end of the chorus. As royal protocol has always dictated that when the monarch stands, everyone in the monarch’s presence is also required to stand, the entire audience and orchestra stood when the king stood during the performance, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries. It is lost to history the exact reason why the King stood at that point, but the most popular explanations include:
• He was so moved by the performance that he rose to his feet.
• He stood out of tribute to the composer.
• As was and is the custom, one stands in the presence of royalty as a sign of respect. The Hallelujah Chorus clearly places Christ as the King of Kings. In standing, King George II accepts that he too is subject to the Lord of Lords.
There is another story told about this chorus that Handel’s assistant walked into his room after shouting to him for several minutes, with no response. The assistant reportedly found Handel in tears, and when asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, “I thought I saw the face of God.”
Since leaving the Christian church band we had played with for about 15 years, my friends and I have been playing with a community band whose members are primarily Jewish. The conductor is Jewish. Yet to my surprise, we’ve played Christmas concerts. This year, we played at a senior citizens home.
I never wanted to leave the church band. I had the perfect instruments. A gorgeous set of orchestra bells, electronic chimes, a beautiful, brand new xylophone that they bought specifically for me, and I even had a vibraphone. This conductor is a nice man, but a demanding, tough guy when it comes to music. He’s a professional conductor who volunteered to direct this community group. I’m by no means a professional musician. I have a stomach ulcer that just would tolerate that kind of stress. I wanted to play music for fun.
Every week, I would complain bitterly to my friends about the instruments I left behind. Luckily, this band always played its concerts in schools that were flush with bells, chimes, vibes, and xylophones galore. Up until this year.
With the tough economic times, it became too expensive to play in the schools: insurance, overtime for the maintenance and all sorts of other problems made those concerts were prohibitive. We would be lucky if we found a church that the band would agree to play at or a nursing home that would welcome us (that shouldn’t have been a problem – and wasn’t – because the musicians on this band are quite proficient; some are professionals or music teachers or both).
I couldn’t keep on asking the other band to loan me their bells. They aren’t very good bells anyway. Students tend to get nervous if the sound is too loud, so the manufacturers lock down the bars of student bells so they don’t ring. It’s great for kids; frustrating for an adult musician. (It turned out the new bells rang so well, our conductor had to come back and ask me to play with softer mallets.)
Thanks to my mother’s generous Christmas gift, I was able to buy the bells and all the toys that go along with them: sleigh bells, whistles, triangles, slapsticks, and so forth. That also meant having to get tables to place both the toys and a set of tubular bells a friend loaned to me on. Not only is it a lot of work carrying all this stuff around, but it was costly. Most of that $1,000 Mom gave me went to my new career as a real musician.
No more playing around.
Still, I asked myself, “Why?” Why do I have to go through all this trouble when I had every instrument a percussionist could ask for back at The Big Church? I asked myself at hear rehearsals, after concerts when I was dead tired, even when I was formatting the Kiddie Christmas photos and found myself looking 150 times at the professional Santa Claus who looked an awful lot like our professional conductor (although his cheeks are rounder than this Santa’s were.).
Part of the answer came during a rehearsal for the Christmas concert. I don’t remember what we were playing, but it was one of the religious Christmas songs; I think it might have been “Joy to the World.” The band was stopped while they worked out some difficulty.
“I don’t get it!” he laughed, shaking his head. “I don’t know what it’s all about. I really don’t; I don’t know what it’s all about. But it’s okay. ‘Tis the season to be jolly. I can go with the flow. Let’s be merry!” I could have answered him, but he was already such a daunting figure, that I knew didn’t dare interrupt his rehearsal to explain it to him.
Some years ago, a Jewish co-worker said the same thing. We’d been talking about Santa Claus – Saint Nicholas, I corrected her. “Do you want to know?” I asked her. I told her it wasn’t my task to force the Good News on anyone. If someone asks, I’ll tell them. In fact, I’m duty-bound to do so. But I have to know if you really want to know?
She said she did and so I told her about Jesus Christ. To my surprise, within a few weeks she and her boyfriend converted. She said that her family was very upset that they were breaking with tradition and that it would cause a rift in the family.
I even told the girl, “Look, maybe you ought to just let it go. I’m sure God will understand.”
But she said she couldn’t turn her back on the truth and her boyfriend agreed (they had done more research on Christianity in the meantime, after my initial talk with her). One of the things she asked me was how the early Christians could be so sure at the birth of this child that he was destined to be The Messiah. The Jewish people thought The Messiah would be a mighty soldier sent by God to deliver them from evil here on Earth.
The reason The Messiah was revealed as an infant, born to lead us into salvation, was to satisfy all that He would retain His innocence throughout his life. Witnesses followed His life from His birth in a manger (a cave that served as a barn for sheep and cattle) to His death on the cross and His resurrection from mortal death.
Anyone could pop up in mid-life and claim, “I’m the Messiah!” But how would we know how this person had lived his life, what was in his heart, and what he really meant to do? Don’t we have that very problem with politicians? That we don’t really know their history, and often only learn of their misdeeds after they’ve been elected to office?
Christ’s birth was God’s assurance that Jesus, indeed, was the one whose coming was prophesied. We could trust Him with all our hearts and souls, and though unbelievable even to his most devout disciples at the time (until it happened), He would give His life for us so that we would be reconciled with God. The cycle of endless life and death would be broken, our sins forgiven, our place in Heaven restored, and peace forevermore.
Of course, that means we have to follow God’s Ten Commandments. We mere mortals tend to do two things: break them out of weakness or refuse to follow them, out of defiance. Where other religions don’t believe there can be any forgiveneness for sins (particularly for the second variety), Christianity teaches that there is forgiveness for the first, and hope and prayer for the second kind (after that, you’re on your own).
There are many good Jews (and other sorts) who are better, more devout than many Christians, and could get into Heaven well ahead of the rest of us – if only they believed it. In the era of Christ, the Jews had a little problem with someone going around telling people that their sins were forgiven them. They had a problem believing many things, such as poor people or people not of the Jewish race could worship God.
Christ (“the anointed, or chosen, one”) was God come to Earth and to life to have a little face-to-face, one-on-one chat with His people. Evidently, He got the idea they were straying from the faith, or keeping others from worshipping, not to mention the Romans, who didn’t care what deity you worshipped as long as you believed Caesar was Divine.
Christ, though He observed all the righteous rituals, had a little problem with all the rituals that were required to be worthy of God. He had another problem with the learned priests taking advantage of the illiterate shepherds and peasants. He was concerned about the extreme poverty and sickness He saw. So He came to do something about it. He healed the sick, taught the peasants to pray, and the priests their place in God’s kingdom.
“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
The people of the times still weren’t quite sure about this Jesus guy, though. He did a lot of neat stuff. He healed many sick people, kicked the priests’ butts, and gave to the poor. But how could they tell He was really the Son of God? Says who?
When put to the test, when He was put on trial, no one believed Him. He knew it was going to happen and that He would be put to death for heresy, by the Romans at the behest of the Jews. It was the moment He was waiting for, though He wasn’t crazy about it. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed to God to stop this thing from happening. But He knew it had to happen. It was what He was born to do.
On the third day after He was crucified, the stone to his tomb was rolled back and what do you think – no Jesus. No body. Supposedly, only the burial garments lay in the empty tomb. His followers ran around looking for him, thinking his body had been stolen, just as the Jews and Romans had.
But then a stranger spoke to Mary Magdalene. When she looked closer, she saw it was Him. He showed her the marks of crucifixion on His hands and even let her touch Him. She spread the word, but who would believe a woman, in those days. Finally, He revealed Himself to his disciples.
Today, people still don’t believe. They perform excavations looking for Jesus’ sarcophagus. Only there isn’t any. None of us are off the hook because He died for our sins, to save us. He said that the only way to God was through Him. God’s not a teddy bear, to be taken advantage of. Jesus said many people would shout “hallelujah!” and then go right back to their old ways, figuring that saying they were sorry would be enough.
That’s the reason the Christian Bible is made of the Old (Jewish) and New Testament, so they remember not to take anything for granted. So what it is, is that Christians shouldn’t count their halos before they’re cast, and Jews need to believe that everyone has the potential for redemption, to be forgiven and saved (if they want to be).
And that, CKY, is the best explanation this poor Christian can give you. For me, that is my Christian duty. Whether or not a skeptic is converted is not my responsibility. But I believe it has been given to me (strange as that may seem) to spread the word to those who ask. I have been tasked to leave the other band to answer someone’s question in the other band.