The Miracle of the Messiah
By: Fr. Tom Newcomb
Condensed from an article by Doron K. Antrim
In addition the glory that God has revealed in Creation, and in addition to the splendor of truth that God has revealed in the Holy Scriptures,
and in addition to the Redemption of the world given in Jesus Christ, from
time to time God has given humanity a very special gift that is both
uniquely suited to an historical time and place and yet also a part of the
permanent sacred deposit of God’s revelation of himself. The Sacred Oratorio Messiah, written by George Frederick Handel in 1741, is one of those
very special gifts. Handel, whose career had soared to highest of heights,
seemed to be approaching the end of his career at a very low ebb. He was
out of favor, financially strapped, discouraged, and resentful. Then in a
surprising way God intervened and did something amazing. A number of
years ago, I shared this account of the composition of Handel’s Messiah. I
share it again because it is dear to me. It is a testament to the amazing grace
of God which again and again surprises us. As we approach the Season
of Advent, which comes at the darkest time of the year, the opening lines
of the Messiah, which come from the 40th chapter of the Book of the
Prophet Isaiah, speak of God’s love piercing the dark gloom that often
comes upon us, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” In
the days between now and Christmas, I invite you to listen, either for the
first time or once again, to the beauty and profound truth that God has
given in and through this great work.
George Frederick Handel was born in Halle, Lower Saxony in Germany in 1685. His father, a barber-surgeon, had hoped to steer his son away from music, but by the time he was 11, Handel knew more than any of his teachers about writing music. As a young man, Handel became well known in Italy and elsewhere as the composer of over forty operas. Eventually Handel settled in London. There, he was extremely popular. He wrote stately music for the aristocracy and was showered with honors by kings and queens. As time went by, however, Handel fell out of favor. Court society turned against him, and jealous rivals sabotaged his performances. He suffered financial setbacks, and then he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side. Heroically, Handel fought back. He went to Europe to take the healing baths. Slowly strength came back to his muscles; he learned to walk again and regained the use of his right hand.
After his recovery, Handel enjoyed a short period of success. He wrote several operas in quick succession and received more honors. But after Queen Caroline, his staunchest patron, died, Handel’s income was severely reduced. Other setbacks came upon him. As Handel sank deeper and deeper into debt, he lost his creative spark. By the time he was almost 60, Handel was in poor health, hopelessly tired and on the point of despair. Bitter thoughts welled up in him. He felt forsaken by God.
Then late one day upon his return home, Handel found a package waiting for him. It was a libretto for “A Sacred Oratorio” from a poet named Charles Jennens. At first Handel was annoyed, but as he read it, the words, all from Scripture, began to speak to him. “He was despised and rejected of men… He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man; neither found He any to comfort Him.” With a growing sense of involvement, Handel read on. “He trusted in God…Thou dist not leave his soul in Hell…He will give you rest.” The words began to come alive and to glow with meaning. “Wonderful, Counselor”, I know that my Redeemer liveth…Rejoice.. Halleluiah.” It was as if a new fire was kindling within him. In his mind, wondrous melodies tumbled over one another. Grabbing a pen he started writing. With incredible swiftness, the notes filled page after page. The next morning Handel’s manservant found him bent over his desk. Putting the breakfast tray within easy reach, he slipped out quietly. At noon, he returned to find the tray untouched.
An anxious time for the faithful old servant followed. Handel would hardly eat. He wrote and wrote, from time to time jumping up to run to the harpsichord. At times, he would stride up and down flailing the air with his arms, singing at the top of his lungs “Halleluiah! Halleluiah!” with tears running down his cheeks.
“I’ve never seen him act like this before” confided the servant to a friend. “He just stares at me and doesn’t see me. He said that the gates of heaven had opened wide for him and God himself was there. I’m afraid he’s going mad.” For 24 days Handel labored like a fiend, with little rest or food. Then he fell on his bed exhausted. On his desk lay the score of the Messiah – the greatest oratorio ever written.
Handel slept as though in a coma for 17 hours; his servant, thinking that he was dying sent for the doctor. But before the doctor arrived, Handel was up and bellowing for food. Wolfishly, he ate half a ham and washed it down with tankards of beer. When the doctor arrived, Handel joked with him. “If you’ve come for a friendly visit, I’m pleased,” he said. “But I won’t have you poking over my carcass. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Because he was so out of favor in London, Handel took the Messiah first to Ireland. In Dublin, he merged two choirs, and on April 13, 1742, Messiah was sung for the first time. The response of the audience was tumultuous. After Dublin, the musical community of London was eager to hear the work. During the first performance, a dramatic incident occurred. At the “Halleluiah Chorus” the crowd, following the example of the King, surged to its feet, a practice which is often continued
to this day.
Handel’s Messiah went on to
become the most loved and often
performed musical work ever presented.
It can be performed as one
long work or divided into two parts,
one centered in Christmas and the
Incarnation of Christ, and the other
centered in Easter presenting
Christ’s Death and Resurrection. All
of the words of the Messiah are
taken verbatim from the King James
Version of the Bible. Various choruses
and solos from the Messiah
are often performed separately.
While Handel lived he presented
Messiah yearly, the proceeds
going to charity. In later life, Handel
was beset with many difficulties, but
he never again succumbed to despair.
Age sapped his vitality. He
went blind. But his undaunted spirit
remained to the last. George
Frederic Handel died on Good Friday
in 1759. But his spirit goes
marching on Messiah, the triumph of
hope over despair. In Messiah,
Handel wrote an oratorio to light the
dark places of the earth as long as
there are voices to lift in song, eyes
to look to the hills and hearts to