No, I’m not talking about whether Rock, Pop, Christian Pop, etc., are evil. I’m thinking about music written using Scripture passages for the libretto but was condemned as mere entertainment. Anything come to mind? Right! Handel’s Messiah. Today marks the anniversary of Handel’s death. And in a way, what is now considered Handel’s masterpiece died shortly after it was written.
It was denied success in London. Many believers were appalled because the “Messiah” was not music for a church service but a “Grand Musical Entertainment” (Jennens). They considered that these Bible passages should only be heard in a liturgical setting. The Bishop of London forbade any performance in an Anglican church.https://www.crescendo.org/download/_JYjOh4VJLA/MESSIAH%20Text%20for%20small%20groups.pdf
This was when the regulative principle went too far, in my opinion. The issue for me is not the music (though I deplore those who try to jazz it up with a pop style.) I have had the privilege of participating in The Messiah’s performance several times. What bothers me most is that some people believed that the Scripture passages were debased if not heard in a liturgical setting. How could it be performed in a church when the Bishop of London forbade it?
Give the Bishop some credit, though, because he believed that the composition was inappropriate for liturgical worship. However, it could have been performed at another time than a worship service. (I realize that the Anglican Church thought the Sanctuary was a holy place reserved exclusively for liturgical worship.) Today, churches allow many things to be done in a “sanctuary” that are probably inappropriate. We have swung quite away from the old tradition when we suggest that the church is just a building and the Sanctuary just a meeting space. Such an attitude is reinforced by churches making an auditorium with a stage for a sanctuary.
Anyone I know who has entered a grand cathedral or one of the many large Roman Catholic churches has come away with a sense of God’s awesomeness. When you speak in one of these churches, you drop your voice to a whisper because it feels like God’s presence surrounds you. We don’t need a cathedral to make a holy space where God is worshipped. But churches usually are structures anyone can recognize as the place people go to worship the one God. Add to that the absence of the symbols of a church within the Sanctuary. When did we throw out great pipe organs? What about the pulpit that reminds us that the preaching of the Word is authorized by God himself?
Sorry. Back to Handel. The music to which the Scriptures are set wells up within the soul and lifts us up. The Scriptures chosen for this piece tell the gospel story of the life of Christ, our Savior, from the prophecies that promise a way prepared for God the Son to enter human life. He is presented in all of his humanity and all of his deity. So, even if the oratorio is “Grand Musical Entertainment,” it presents the Gospel of Christ to those who do not know or believe the story. For those of us who can hear Scriptures presented individually and as a whole in such a way that we can be opened to deeper understanding.
When I began in the pastoral ministry, I thought I had to do something unique and different for Christmas and Easter sermons. Now I am older, and I have become convinced that following the church calendar is not mere tradition. Instead, it is an annual re-living the Gospel. Christmas is to remember and experience what the shepherds saw, what Simeon and Anna experienced, what the magi traveled so far to see and worship. We need to hear this story every year. We need to remember the story of the resurrection of Christ. For that matter, it is good to hear of Christ’s baptism by John, his ascension to the throne of the universe, all of the gospel. I believe that Christmas is kind of empty if I can’t start the day with morning worship. When did we lose that awe of hearing the multitude of angels singing? When did Christmas become a private celebration for feasting and opening presents? Handel’s Messiah helps us restore the gospel, for, in it, we relive the life of Christ, which in whole, it is the foundation of our faith.
I looked back at my life, and I realized that when I was closest to my Lord, I attended Christmas Eve and Christmas morning worship. It was when I led Ascension Day services, poorly attended because it is always a mid-week celebration. When I was a participant every year within the gospel.
Life outside the Church has become all too important. We don’t want to miss a thing. We use day planners and “smart” phones to keep our day on track. What have we done? What is more important than Christ. Jesus is present with us in the Church and in the Church’s worship. Why is it so hard to go to church more than once a week (excluding non-worship activities)? I think that is why being with the elderly is important. Those old Christians can’t wait to enter the permanent presence of Christ.
So, hat’s off to you, Georg Friedrich Handel. May you enjoy the blessings of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for you gave the world one of the most magnificent works of art that keeps the gospel before us.