2021 Advent Devotions

Isaiah 40:1-5 | December 1, 2021

Handel’s Messiah
by Roy Terry

Handel’s Messiah is among the most widely beloved of all sacred choral works. German born in 1685, Handel moved to England as an adult, where he became known as a composer of Italian operas. The sacred Messiah marked a significant change of direction in his compositional work. Handel’s masterwork premiered in Dublin to accolades in 1742, followed by a first London performance in 1743. Legend has it that King George II was so moved by the music that he rose from his seat to stand during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, inspiring us to still do so today. Historians now question whether George II even attended that initial London performance. In this instance, I prefer not to spoil a good legend. Please continue to rise and stand!

Handel composed Messiah in three parts. Only Part I addresses the birth of Jesus. Part II, which actually includes the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, addresses his death. Part III addresses his Resurrection. The River Road Chancel Choir has the cherished tradition of performing Part I of the Messiah, together with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, every other December. Those performances are accompanied by orchestral players in addition to our pipe organ. Bob Gallagher has taken to directing us from the chancel’s center while also playing the harpsicord. Christmas decorations always adorn the sanctuary. People come from within and beyond the church to fill the house. It is a magical time for everyone involved that, like so much else in our lives, has been interrupted by the Covid pandemic in 2020, and again now in 2021. Watch out for next year.

Even though River Road’s sanctuary will not resonate with our traditional Messiah performance this December, many recordings exist which still permit us all to revel in Handel’s masterpiece. My favorite recording of Messiah is by the London Symphony and Chorus, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. We own versions in both vinyl and CD. They will soon be heard in our house.

Following Messiah’s famous overture, a tenor soloist (of course) steps forward to sing the opening lines. Today at River Road Church, we can envision the superb Chris Ahart stepping forward. The text which he then sings comes directly from the King James version of today’s Advent scripture—Isaiah 40:1-5. The singer initially offers us comfort. A voice next cries in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill laid low. Is Isaiah prophesying about John the Baptist? And in what form will the Lord appear? He will not come in the manner expected. A little later in Part I of Messiah, Handel makes clear that the Lord arrives in the form of the Christ child—for unto us a child is born. Amen.