This article was first published in 1998 in the newsletter of Edmonton’s Richard Eaton Singers, with whom I sang from 1988 to 2002. I am reviving it in response to a conversation with a friend about Messiah, and its place in contemporary traditions, particularly as a fixture of the Christmas season.
Although by far the best-known of Handel’s (or anyone’s) oratorios, Messiah is not typical of the form. Most of his other oratorios are more like operas, with dramatic scenes, and characters portrayed by soloists. The choir often takes a lesser role, in some cases substituting for the action of a fully staged opera. (Mendelsohn’s Elijah is a good example of this type of work.) Israel in Egypt, almost without solos, was Handel’s other notable departure from the norm—and it was unsuccessful in his time.
Messiah is different. Apart from the “angel” scene (from the “Pastoral Symphony” through “Glory to God”), there is neither character nor action. In the libretto he put together for Handel, Charles Jennings drew on Biblical texts reflecting on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, known as the Christ or the Messiah. (The two titles are the Greek and Hebrew words meaning “anointed one.”)
If there is no dramatic development in its layout, what then is the organizing idea behind its structure? In the middle of a performance of the work, it occurred to me that Jennings’ choice of texts has close parallels to the Nicene Creed. It draws our attention to the whole of the Creed’s second article and part of the third. On reflection, this should be no surprise: the Creed is simply a summary of the Christian faith, and Messiah aims to depict and reflect musically upon the “kernel” of that faith, particularly with respect to the person and work of Jesus.
Each of the Creed’s three articles corresponds to one of the three persons of the Trinity. The first expresses faith in the one God, the creator of all. While this belief of course underlies the entire work, Messiah makes no specific reference to it. The second article deals with Jesus, telling of his birth AND making theological statements about his divine and human nature, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection. It ends with an expression of faith in his return to judge “the living and the dead.” The first two sections of Messiah deal with Jesus’ birth, his passion and resurrection, ending with “Hallelujah,” whose text exalts the eternal Lordship of Jesus the Messiah, closely paralleling the credal statement.
The theological heart of the Creed is the proclamation “on the third day he rose again.” (Lat. et resurrexit tertia die). Mass settings typically make much of this text. For example, a critical turning-point in Bach’s B-Minor Mass is the joyful outburst of “Et resurrexit” after the darkness and grief of the “Crucifixus.”
Although not perhaps presenting it as vividly as does Bach, Handel gives us a similar turning-point at the tenor solo “But thou didst not leave His soul in hell.” The oratorio’s first reference to the resurrection, this aria brings relief and lightness after the stress and drama of the passion section, breaking in on the somber recitative “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” The change of mood is immediate and notable, and the sense of joy increases as the section progresses. Even the somewhat stern selections from Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations,” “Let us break their bonds,” and “Thou shalt break them”) are properly seen as expressing thanks and praise in anticipation of God’s victory. “Hallelujah” is a fitting response to these pieces, releasing the tension in a way that does full justice to the Creed’s affirmation “He shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.”
The third article of the Creed speaks of the Holy Spirit and the church, ending with the assertion of hope in the “life of the world to come.” (Lat. et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen, set especially dramatically in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) Rarely performed in its entirety, Messiah’s third section is an extended meditation on the promise of resurrection through Jesus Christ. The link to the Creed’s closing affirmation is clear. For Part III Jennings drew heavily on 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the New Testament’s most important statement about the hope of the resurrection.
The final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb … Amen.” sums up the promise of the first section, the drama of the second, and the hope of the third.
In Messiah, Handel and his librettist have brought theology and music together in an unparalleled and happy union.
Think back to 1965 if you can. I suspect some readers of this post weren’t even born then. But in that year I was seventeen, a first-year student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I had skipped one year of school, so I was a year younger than most of my fellow frosh. I had also graduated at the top of my high school class, and was headed into the first year of an Honors program in Mathematics. I loved music, and was devoted to my church.
Some of my high school colleagues were “rushed” by fraternities at U. of A. Not wanting to be left out, I went with them to a couple of rush parties, and experienced something close to outright disdain, as in “Who the heck are you, and what are you doing here?” It wasn’t a lot of fun. Some of my friends ended up as frat members, and for a while I was deeply envious. Until…
I started hearing stories about how they behaved at their parties, and how women were treated there. Do you know what a “Purple Jesus” is? Neither did I, but apparently it was a standard ruse to get young women drunk and take advantage of them. (It’s a mixture of port wine and vodka, BTW).
As I started to get into U. life, I found friends and like-minded people in choral, religious, and political circles. I sang, I prayed with people, and I was drawn into the peace movement of the late ’60’s. I lost touch with my high school friends who had joined fraternities, most of them with the avowed aim of making connections to get ahead in the future.
Clearly, I wasn’t welcome at those rush parties, and I couldn’t figure out why at the time. It seems I was a bit too much of a nerd, although that word wasn’t current at the time. I suspect also that my family didn’t have the “right” connections. My father was well-respected in medical circles, but we had no real roots in Alberta, having only arrived in Canada from the U.K. in 1952.
I have come to see the culture of those fraternities as part of the disease infecting our society. It’s a culture of entitlement: male, white, and connected. It is full of misogyny, racism, and “good-ol’-boy” thinking. I went my own way in University days and afterward, and ceased to have any real connection with that part of life. I have no regrets, as I have worked to build a life based on respect for ALL people, which eventually led me into the vocation I followed for most of my adult life.
I retired as a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2013, having held a number of responsible positions in that church, but all the while refusing the attitude of entitlement that I found in many of my co-religionists.
Which brings me to this past couple of weeks, watching the spectacle of the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, now sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the USA. The process made me glad that I live in Canada, where the judiciary is far less politicized than in the U.S. The way the process worked out both astonished and appalled me: the duplicity evinced by partisans on both sides was almost beyond belief. But what struck me more than anything else was the attitude displayed by the nominee. He’s a frat boy, I realized. And in some ways that says it all. He is there because he’s entitled to be there, whether or not he has abused other people on the way to where he has arrived. For the record, I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate committee.
These events took me back to the humiliation I experienced at those rush parties, where the people in charge looked at me as less than them, and derided me for who I was.
Does Brett Kavanaugh deserve to be where he is now? Many people seem to think so. But for me, his elevation to such a high office is further testimony to how warped our society has become. I know I’m writing from Canada, where we do not have such a process, but it is clear to me that we are not immune to this kind of entitlement thinking.
I look for the day when our courts are visibly representative of, and speak to, all segments of our society, especially those who have been seen as underclasses in the past and still today. I think particularly of women, Indigenous people, the poor, the LBGTQB2+ community, religious minorities, racial minorities, immigrants of all origins, and all who have felt the sting of not being entitled.
I follow the way of Jesus, the one who came to invite all people into the Kingdom of the God whom he called “Abba.” No-one should be excluded, just as no-one should believe themselves entitled to inclusion.
We are all here and beloved by the Grace of God. May our courts and our legislatures live by that truth.
Many Math. majors (like me in a former life) will have heard the “proof” that all numbers are interesting.
- Assume there is a non-empty set of natural numbers (i.e. 1,2,3,…) which are uninteresting.
- This set must have a smallest member.
- Being the smallest uninteresting number is itself interesting.
- Since a number cannot be both interesting and uninteresting, the assumption in 1. must be false.
- Therefore, all numbers are interesting.
But then, to riff on George Orwell (cf. Animal Farm), all numbers may be interesting, but some are more interesting than others.
Today I encountered a number which for me is very interesting, the number 70. What’s interesting about it? Only that age 70 sounds to me a lot older than age 69. Maybe it’s the change in the first digit, something that’s only happened to me 6 times before. Age is a physical reality, but it’s also a mental and emotional reality.
A friend once said of a mutual acquaintance that he had been “born 80 years old.” Even in middle age, he presented as tired and crotchety, often harking back to earlier days. I hope no-one ever says that of me, although I recall that someone once described me as “stuffy.” My rather warped sense of humor tends to hide when I’m in a public role. People who know me better know that my wit sometimes gets the better of me.
I’ve now been retired for about 5 years (Since June 23 or July 31, 2013, depending on how you reckon it.) I’ve enjoyed most of those years, especially the last two or three. It’s good to be free to make your own decisions about what to do with your time, without too many occupational restrictions. I had some plans when I retired. Some have borne fruit, others have been deferred, still others have been put away permanently, and some new things have arisen. I’m not making many new plans at the moment, except for our 50th wedding anniversary celebrations in just over a year.
When I was in school and looking forward to the great challenges of University and adult life, anyone older than my parents seemed absolutely ancient. I’m much older now than they were then, and I don’t feel old at all … at least not most of the time!
The interest of this particular birthday is that it the first one in a long time that has turned me to thinking about the future. Not the past — there’s still plenty of time for that — but what is to come. If my parents’ and grandparents’ lives are any indication, I should have 15 years or so to look forward to. I don’t look forward today in the same way I looked forward at age 16, which was filled with both eagerness and anxiety. Rather, I welcome each day as it comes, with new light in the window, and both new and old things to do.
Life continues to be good.
Thanks be to God.
Disclaimer: I have not watched all of the wedding of the Duke & Duchess of Sussex. I have listened to some of the music, and I have paid close attention to the homily. As with any couple setting out on the adventure we call marriage, I wish them well, and pray that their union will be long and fruitful, in many ways.
Nonetheless, I must declare myself as a non-Royalist. That’s not to say I want to get rid of the monarchy, but rather that I am mostly indifferent to the institution as we have received it in Canada. There’s a good argument that having a monarch helps to keep our politicians honest, and I’m OK with that. But the actual practice of constitutional monarchy in Canada is largely conventional. We nod to the Queen in many ways, but in reality, a nod is about all we do.
Queen Elizabeth II is a remarkable woman, a person for whom I have great respect. She has negotiated the demands of a more-or-less impossible job with grace, dignity, and resolution. She will be greatly mourned by many, including this writer, when she dies.
What will happen then? Will people and nations who have given their allegiance to QEII for more than 60 years immediately and unreservedly transfer it to her son? Some reports have suggested that Charles will have a great deal of work to do to win over the affection of many people. His time to do this will be limited: he is only 5 months younger than me, and I’ll be 70 in a couple of months.
What this is all about is the parlous state of the monarchy, both in the U.K. and the rest of the Commonwealth of Nations. I note that the Commonwealth was invented in QEII’s reign, so this grouping of former British dependencies has known no other head than the current one. Several Commonwealth nations have removed the Queen from being head of state, and others have had significant debates about it. It is unlikely that my country, Canada, will enter into such a debate, because that requires re-opening our Constitution, and that carries a whole mess of problems.
Anyway… this was supposed to be about a wedding. The groom is now 6th in line for the throne, which essentially means that he is in very little danger of ever having to move into Buckingham Palace. He can do what he likes, and he has done so, by marrying a woman he clearly loves, but whose background is so far removed from the traditional world of the Windsors that she might as well have been born on a different planet.
I congratulate Prince Harry and Meghan. Love has brought them together, and I pray that love will see them through the years ahead. It will probably not be easy for either of them, especially her, although she does seem to have her eyes wide open.
The part of the wedding that seems to have gained the most notice is the homily by the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I watched and listened as Bishop Michael preached. I rejoiced in the strength of his message of love and the centrality of love. I tried not to giggle as the camera panned over the assembled guests, revealing various levels of stiff upper lips, amusement, dismay, joy, and discomfort.
Bishop (no, Brother!) Michael preached the Gospel. He reminded us that love IS the answer, and that “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” He asked us to imagine a world where love rules. He mostly didn’t address the marriage couple directly, which some friends of mine have criticized, but his attention was very clearly on them at most times. What this implied to me was that their marriage was to be evidence of the love by which God created the world, by which God redeemed the world, and by which God continues to renew the world. I don’t think they are stupid people: I believe they got the point!
Bishop Michael’s sermon got people’s attention, and that’s a very good thing. He preached the Gospel of Christ to at least a billion people, an opportunity which comes to very few preachers. He did his Church, his Country, his people, and his Lord proud. I am glad to call him a fellow priest of the Anglican Communion. He knows and lives and preaches true evangelism.
The traditions of royalty are not a bad thing. But we were reminded this past Saturday that they are not the whole thing, nor even the main thing. The main thing is the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord,” and that therefore no one else can claim that title. And as Michael Curry reminded us, Jesus’ lordship is not about power, it’s not about prestige, it’s not about titles and dignities. No, it’s all about love: love of God, and love of neighbour.
Best wishes to the newlyweds: may their marriage be to all us of a sign of God’s love.
Today I had the privilege of preaching and presiding at the Eucharist at Holy Trinity (aka “HTAC”). I had been scheduled to preach for a while, but other commitments took both our Rector and our Assistant Priest away from the parish. So…
Yours truly got to do what I used to do most Sundays for a quarter of a century. They say that riding a bike is easy once you learn how to do it, and once you have learned, doing it again is simple. You just get in the saddle and pedal.
That’s rather how today felt. HTAC is not “my” parish, at least not in the sense that St. Matthew’s Cathedral and St. Augustine’s-Parkland were. There, I was the Rector, expected to be present and available every day, and to do what had to be done at pulpit and altar most Sundays. Most Sundays at HTAC, I’m sitting in the back row of the bass section in the church choir, and happy to be there.
Today was different. I prayed with the choir before the service as usual, but today I led the prayers. I sang the psalm with the choir, but today from the presider’s desk. I proclaimed the Gospel and preached, and then went to the altar to preside at the sacrament.
These things happen every Sunday at HTAC. But today I assumed roles that other people usually take. And (I have to confess) it felt good.
Readers of this blog may have intuited that I wasn’t really ready to retire in 2013, but rather that the situation was forced on me. Today reminded me that I still feel most alive when I’m ministering in the pulpit and at the altar. I still believe that this I what God made me for, but I recognize that other people have similar calls, and that I have to let go as I am able.
I am truly grateful for today’s experience. I hope that my ministry today helped at least someone. That’s all I can expect, and all any ordained person can hope for.
Thanks be to God for this day. I have posted the text for today’s sermon under “Sermons and theological discussions.” Read it HERE.
It’s been a while since I posted to this blog. I started a couple of posts recently, but then abandoned them. Somehow what I was trying to say wouldn’t come together, probably meaning that I didn’t really need to say it. Cyberspace is clogged up enough without another maundering and meandering blog post!
I started thinking about forgiveness once more after reading a post by a good friend. Read it HERE. The writer is living with the ongoing business of forgiving hurt caused by a church community several years ago. I know whereof she writes, having been through my own time of hurt coming from within a church. I’ve posted about that before: there’s no need to rehash the event.
The issue that presented itself this time was how much pain comes from a hurt caused by a church. I have spoken to many people who have harbored deep sorrow or anger after some event. It seems to me that this pain is often out of proportion to the actual offense, and I have had cause to wonder why. Here’s what I have come to conclude.
The church is called to proclaim good news: love, peace, mercy, healing, welcome, kindness, compassion, caring … the list could go on until tomorrow morning! When we choose to make our spiritual home in a congregation, we expect that we find all of these things in its midst. In contrast to other groups, the church easily becomes the object of higher expectations, shaped by the message it seeks to proclaim. When it fails, the failure is harder to take, and the source of greater pain.
All this is a reminder that churches are human organizations, populated by ordinary people who share a calling to seek something better. We sometimes fail in that calling, and act in ways that belie the goals with which we have been charged. We fail because we are human, but our failures are inevitably held up against the strong light of divine ideals. There’s nothing wrong, and everything right, about those ideals. Nonetheless, we should temper our expectations with the knowledge that people can and do fail.
As I noted in my previous post, forgiveness is hard work, but it is at the heart of Christian life. We cannot find God’s peace when our hearts are at war.
I still choose to forgive.
Last night, at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton, Bishop Jane Alexander ordained three people to the priesthood and seven (!) to the diaconate. If I’m not mistaken, it was the largest ordination in this Diocese since at least 1986. The Cathedral was almost full, and there was a large turnout of the diocesan clergy. Some of us had speculated about how long the liturgy would take, and we were agreeably surprised when it came in at about 2 1/4 hours. I didn’t hang around too long afterward. Bun fights in tight spaces make me a bit anxious, and my hearing issues (hypersensitivity to crowd sound at voice range) make it difficult to function in that kind of noisy environment. Nonetheless, I did have time to greet one of the ordinands, a person with whom I have had a long and special relationship.
I don’t ever recall being at an ordination service for so many people. Most of the ordinations I participated in during my time in the Diocese of Brandon were for individuals. I have no problem with the church celebrating the new ministry of a person who has been raised up for ordination. What has often troubled me is that these celebrations often become about the individual. Ordination should not be about a person having “made it,” but about the church renewing its leadership.
Last night’s service filled me with joy. I knew three of the ten ordinands personally, one better than the other two, but that’s not really the point. I saw ten (count ’em – 10!) people being affirmed in ministries that we prayed would be of benefit to the church and the world. It wasn’t about any one of them, but about the church engaged in the continuous and joyful renewal of its leadership. It was wonderful! I give thanks for the privilege of being present for all ten, even if seven of them were previously totally unknown to me except as names on a list.
On Holy Cross Day, our preacher recalled for us the love displayed and exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross. It doesn’t make sense to some people, but that’s okay. The ten who were ordained last night will share in proclaiming that truth, in their lives and their ministries. (Is there really any difference?)
Today, I welcome three people to the fellowship of the Holy Priesthood and seven people to the company of Deacons. May they continue to proclaim the love of God at all times and all places.
Finally my question to anyone who may be considering ordination in the church. Is your call about what YOU want to do, or about what GOD needs in the world. Is it about the church (God’s people) or about you? I pray that you may be able to answer that question prayerfully and honestly.
I have been watching the news this past week with a growing heaviness of heart. Tensions between the USA and North Korea have escalated. Political divisions in Venezuela have increased. Questions about the use of Canadian-supplied military vehicles in Saudi Arabia have come to the fore.
And this weekend? Charlottesville, a name which will surely become enshrined in popular history like the names of Selma, Soweto, and so many other places where the fight for human rights has been fought.
Charlottesville. The home of Thomas Jefferson, the site of the University of Virginia, a small, otherwise unnotable city in the west of the state of Virginia, has become this weekend the site of one of the most egregious battles in recent years. The origin: white supremacists moved against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the most important military leader of the Confederacy in the US Civil War. Lee certainly deserves some credit in the realm of military leaders. Without his tactical genius, the Civil War would probably have been over long before it actually ended.
Lee was a great general. Few would dispute that. But many today would dispute the morality of the cause for which he fought. It is clear to me and many others that the Civil War was fought to establish the southern states’ right to continue the practice of slavery. That fact, if no other, discredits the cause of those who would enshrine the memory of Gen. Lee. (For a more detailed analysis of Lee’s career, see this article from the Atlantic.)
What happened this weekend? I can only repeat what I have seen in a variety of news media. One group gathered to protest the removal of Lee’s statue. They marched with torches and slogans reminiscent of ones used by Hitler’s supporters in the ’30’s. Another group gathered to oppose the first group’s protest. There were clashes between the two groups, with some presence of police, whose actions are a matter of dispute. Clergy of many denominations marched silently to call all to a peaceful solution, respecting the rights of all people. Then, the next day, as people continued to demonstrate for their various points of view, a car was driven into a group of people who had gathered to promote the equality of all people. A woman was killed and many others were injured.
Those are fact as I understand them. I stand to be corrected if I have made any egregious errors. Nonetheless, the fact remains that a woman (#HeatherHeyer) who had worked all her life to promote the equality of all people under the law has been killed for her dedication to what she understood to be the purpose of her country: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (from the US Declaration of Independence).
It breaks my heart that the nation to which my own country has the closest ties has descended to such depths that a person who dedicated her life to the founding principles of that nation could be killed for simply standing up for those principles.
As the United States of America works through this most grievous incident, it is my prayer that my country of Canada and every other country may come to see that racial, religious, ethnic, and all other divisions must be overcome, and that may all of us may live in peace, unity, and concord.
My heart is broken for the people of the USA. May you come to know God’s peace in all your doings.
I live in Canada. Tomorrow, July 1, is our national holiday, Canada Day, the day when we celebrate the inauguration of the Confederation that is still our defining constitutional reality. It’s 150 years since our country became a defined national entity. There will be parties tomorrow, and we will participate in them, with joy and thanksgiving. This is a wonderful country.
As I write, members of our country’s First Nations are protesting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, erecting a teepee as a sign of “reoccupation” of the land on which the seat of our government stands. They are not celebrating “Canada 150” in anything like the way we settlers are.
I am an immigrant. My passport declares my place of birth to be “Richmond UK,” at that time in County Surrey, and now a part of Greater London. My family came to Canada in the early 50’s, in the great exodus of medical doctors that happened after the introduction of Britain’s National Health Service. Our life in Canada was challenging for my parents, far away from family and the familiarity of home territory. Nonetheless, they made a firm decision to stay here, to put down roots, and to build a life for their family. We use to sit around the dinner table and hear stories of the old country, but on one occasion I remember my father saying that he was so glad he had brought his family to this country. He talked about it as if it was the promised land — and very likely for him it was just that.
I learned some years later that he had a choice of jobs when he left the UK. Instead of Canada, we could have ended up either in the USA or South Africa. Events of the past quarter-century have made me very glad that he chose Canada.
And yet — as the current events in Ottawa make very clear — this is not a perfect country. I came to Canada aged not quite four, and have had a good life here. Nonetheless, I am very conscious that what I enjoy is not enjoyed by many others, and that the original inhabitants of this land have paid a heavy price for the blessings which I have received. I am in their debt.
This is a wonderful country: we have incredible landscapes, rich resources, a wealth of great people. But we have built a lot of what we have on the backs of the people who were here before us, and who do not share much of the bounty of the land we now call Canada.
I celebrate my country. I give thanks for the people who have made it what it is, knowing that those people are both indigenous and settlers. I pray that the years to come may continue to be a time of reconciliation between our peoples; and that the original inhabitants of Turtle Island may find a full role in the unfolding of our country’s future.
No nation is perfect. We all have stains on our history, which we cannot remove. What we can do is acknowledge our part in inheriting those stains, and continue to work towards reconciliation between those who are historical enemies.
God has blessed this country richly. May all of its peoples come to rejoice in our mutual blessings, and so help to build God’s Kingdom in this place