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Handel's Masterpiece

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

While the "Hallelujah Chorus" is likely the most well-known portion of Handel's Messiah, "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" is a favorite with many.

Having sung the alto part in choirs a few times now, it is also a favorite of mine. I particularly like how every vocal part has its moment to shine, a rare opportunity for the vocal parts that are often in supportive roles to the melody.

Musically, Handel repeats the phrase that is already a repeated phrase in Isaiah 9:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.

In this phrase, Isaiah repeats the idea of a savior's birth (child is born, son is given), and then Handel weaves the repeated phrase through an entire song for extra impact. Says Mozart, regarding Handel:

"Handel understands effect better than any of us -- when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

Throughout the sung, as the parts interweave, they come together in the culminating phrase,

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Thunderbolt indeed!

It's a moment of great encouragement in Isaiah, sandwiched in between dire prophesies, as Isaiah tends to do.

Before the portion that inspired Handel, Isaiah opens with,

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan--The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.

A little geography is needed. Zebulun and Naphtali are some of the northern tribes of Israel, and they're the ones undergoing terrible times. After the civil war in the nation, the northern kingdom of Israel was cut off from the temple in Jerusalem, far to the south. They merge the worship of Yahweh with the other religions around them. Archeology records verify the extensive presence of household idols (although, Judah in the south wasn't immune from this, either).

It's these northern tribes that Assyria is annihilating, in multiple waves of conquest. Eventually, these tribes will become the Lost Tribes of Israel, so that only Judah and Benjamin are left intact and even they are exiled. Post-exile, the northern lands are repopulated with some Judeans, such as a certain Joseph who ends up having to travel back down to his hometown in Bethlehem at a key moment in history...

Bottom line, the history of these northern lands has not been good. Civil war, steady decline, complete disintegration as a people group...

Darkness may be an understatement. And yet it communicates a spiritual reality. For those going through difficult economic and political times, it would be natural to look for military or civic leaders for hope. The answer that Isaiah gives, in his beautiful, poetic, divinely-inspired phrasing, incorporates some human institutions but ultimately says that the source of this security will be through the Child being born...

The government will be on his shoulders

He's a Mighty Counselor, in the legal/military sense--giving wise counselor on major initiatives.

Mighty God.

Everlasting Father--a phrase not often used of the Son in Christian circles, yet it shows that overly rigid views of "roles" go beyond what Scripture teaches. Spurgeon writes, “There is no unfathering Christ, and there is no unchilding us,” and, “He is everlastingly a father to those who trust in him.”

In my household, we spend a lot of time reading and studying on how the church and society have gotten very hung up on gender roles and Trinitarian roles (Jesus does this, God the Father does that...the Holy Spirit sometimes forgotten...). So much time and energy spent on rigid definitions, and it is hard to not see various agendas at play. I would argue that our time would be better spent on what it means that Christ is our Everlasting Father. Being a father means connection, relationship. Fathers in healthy families are loving and connected to each member of the family. Jesus is Everlastingly a Father to us.

In fact, we'd do well to meditate and reflect on each of these words for Jesus. The last one may be particularly important right now.

Prince of Peace.

He doesn't just bring peace, He rules it!!

In the Gospels, we frequently see see "Peace be with you," as a common Greek/Mediterranean greeting. John the Apostle shows us Jesus saying this quite frequently. Many churches have a time within the service to "pass the peace," usually through a handshake, spoken word, or hug.

During these pandemic times, we've substituted the elbow bump of peace.

Something about saying the word, "Peace," to another person seems particularly powerful to me. I seek peace, I hunger for it, I long to speak of it with others. I long when for the day when this portion of Isaiah 9 becomes true for the world.

If Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, what does it mean when some who accept the label "Christian" work to actively disrupt it? Whether or not that disruption is through actual violence or through fomenting words of distrust or hatred ("Peace, peace," we should be saying), Jesus himself tells us in the Beatitudes that words, thoughts, and actions alike are all to be in alignment with His Way.

In no context is a follower one in name only. To follow someone means to literally do what they do. Many of us follow people on Twitter and end up thinking what others think. Social media followership is arguably a key reason why we are in this time of distrust and anger in the first place. In a country that prides itself on independence, there's strikingly little original thought...just a lot of following.

If Jesus is our Prince of Peace, His way is the way to follow. His path is the path to be on. His Kingdom is the one to support.

Doing so will build and support the people and communities around us. It always has, in the history of the church. The way of peace is one of service, love, humility, sacrifice of others over self. Things that take a lifetime and then some to cultivate. This path of peace should be keeping us plenty busy.

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