My dad and I have a lot in common. We share an introversive, low-key attitude. We’re both college professors (although I’m a lowly adjunct and he spent 35+ years shaping young lives, earning the lasting and affectionate tile, “Doc Liles”). We love Star Trek, pizza nights, impromptu silly dancing, and C.S. Lewis.
One of the most beautiful things my father shares with me: A deep love for classical, operatic and sacred music.
Our family Christmases are full of long-standing tradition, one of my favorites being Handel’s Messiah. My dad performed as the tenor soloist at Mount Vernon Nazarene University’s annual production throughout his entire career. His reflections on Handel’s work are priceless to my family, and I’m thrilled to share them with my followers here.
And in case you didn’t know… my dad and I have one more thing in common: We’re both bloggers! This post originated on Doc’s Blog in 2010, and it’s featured again here with his permission as my gift to you. Merry Christmas!
Messiah: A Convergence of the Commonplace and the Miraculous
By B. David “Doc” Liles
Part 1: Introduction
I have had the great privilege of performing Messiah more than 40 times in my career. I performed this great work for the 37th time at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in December of 2010. There is a power and majesty about this work that consistently moves believers and non-believers alike. We simply cannot get away from that fact. Once at a performance at MVNU, a young man turned to my wife and asked, “What is the Messiah about anyway?” Carol responded, “It’s about the birth, suffering and ultimate victory of the Messiah”. The young man replied, “Whose birth?” Carol then explained what she meant. Even though he apparently knew nothing about the story or the main Character, he was still singing along with some of the choruses. Messiah is a masterful piece of music by one of history’s greatest – George Frederick Handel, a German composer who spent a lot of his life in England. The whole thing was completed in 1741 in only 24 days, orchestral parts, solo parts, choruses and all. The first performance did not take place until the spring of 1742.
My first experience with Messiah was at Trevecca Nazarene University in 1966 or 67 – it’s been a while and I honestly don’t remember the year. I do recall being nervous when faced with potential pitfalls contained in the opening tenor aria, Every Valley. It took me a while to realize that the fast moving melismas are part of what Handel intended, using the technique of word painting, or, setting specific colorful words to music that matches the colorful nature of the word itself. In other words, the phrase, “shall be exalted”, must sound…well…exalted!! No, these are not random…they are intentional – and treacherous!
The overture starts out in a minor key, signifying the state of the world at the time before the Messiah appeared. It seemed that God had abandoned Israel. That sounds strange to us, but it was true. Chaos, captivity, Roman rule, multiple foreign gods, etc. were a way of life for the Israelites at the time. But, at just the right time, God sent His Son to be the Messiah, the anointed one, to usher in the new Kingdom. Why then? Why not before then to relieve Israel’s suffering sooner? We cannot know the reason for God’s timing in all things. We must simply have faith that His timing is ALWAYS right. Now, we all know that faith can be difficult at times. Philip Yancey said that faith is trusting now what will only make sense in reverse. God knew when the time was right to send his son to “pitch his tent” among us for a while.
And then, we hear Isaiah’s words, “Comfort, comfort ye my people” and the picture begins changing.
Part 2: The Commonplace
I am struck by the commonplace nature of things. If we were in charge of the birth of the Son of God, what would we have planned? How would we have done it? If it were left up to me, I would have found the best hospital in the world; chartered the finest aircraft in existence to fly him to that hospital – with a military escort also; hired the world’s best OBGYNs and pediatricians and nurses; made sure every dime was covered by health insurance; built the finest palace the world has ever seen for him to come home to; gotten the finest in baby clothing, an endless supply of the best diapers, lotions, plenty of toys to play with, hired the best tax lawyers to take care of the finances, paper work, and other registration issues, and a staff that would cater to his slightest whim. Well…I guess that’s why God did not ask me to plan things. Instead he chose a simple teenaged girl, a young woman not even married and who had never known a man. She was not of nobility. She was a commoner, not anyone special – at least as far as we can see. She was engaged to a carpenter – not a nobleman, or, once again, anyone special. Her life was actually in danger as a result of being pregnant and not married. She could have been stoned to death on adultery charges. But, this pregnancy was different. It was by the Holy Spirit. This is the reason why the angel told Joseph to take her as his wife and leave the area for while.
OK…tax time, or the biblical equivalent of our April 15. The Bible calls it being registered. Joseph took Mary, being REALLY pregnant on a long trip…probably riding on a donkey, no less. He got to Bethlehem and went to an inn. Since this was tax time, the place was full…no room inside. So…what does the innkeeper do? He sends them to his barn to rest…smelly, unmentionable stuff all over the floor, cold, animals complaining about the intrusion and curiously wondering what was going on – well, you get the picture. Well…guess what? While they were in the barn, Mary’s time came. She went into labor. She was about to give birth in a barn of some sorts. Guys if we are nervous at a time like that when our wives go into labor, ever wonder how Joseph must have felt? Ladies how would you like to give birth to a child…in a barn? There were no cribs, no doctors, no nurses, possibly no one around to help with the delivery at all. Just ponder the details and you can imagine how difficult this must have been. After he was born, Mary had no choice but to lay him in a manger. Now a manger was a carved wooden box that was used to feed animals. The word has its roots in French, from the word manger, meaning, “to eat”…!
Shepherds. They were pretty low on the socio-economic scale. They were looked down on in society, and probably many could not be trusted. They had a hard life, living outside most of the time – with their sheep. Yet, God chose to make his entrance known to these lowly characters…not to lawyers, high priests, scribes, or anyone of importance. Jesus even later identified himself as a Good Shepherd. These guys were out in the field, probably with their children, and suddenly they saw a chorus of angels and were terrified…uh…yeah, I would be too. They were told where to go, so they went…to a barn and saw the Holy Family, and a tiny baby lying in a feeding trough. The scriptures say they returned “glorifying and praising God”. The simplicity, the commonplace nature of it all must have caught their attention. In some way, they must have understood.
Several years pass. Astrologers from the east come and visit, presenting gifts to the child and his family. These gifts were probably very much needed by them, especially the gold. We don’t hear anything else from this God/child until the age of 12. He and his family go to Jerusalem for a festival…and Jesus gets lost. For some reason, Mary and Joseph either don’t realize it for a while, or simply can’t find him anywhere. Now, like a typical 12 year old, who thinks he/she has the world already figured out, he says to them after they find him, “Didn’t you know that I had to be about doing my Father’s work…?” Mary did think about these things a lot, but the scripture says he was obedient to his parents from then on. He must have gotten the idea that his time to go public had not come yet.
Ok. Jesus about age 30 or so, decides NOW is the correct time to go public. How does he do it? He does not form a committee to study the demographics. He does not hire a marketing firm. He does not hire staff…he has the disciples but they were not “hired” as such; they were simply told to follow him. The way he becomes public…is to be baptized, by his cousin, himself a forest dwelling wild man. No press releases; no big news stories about the new evangelist. A while after his baptism he disappears for a month or more and is not seen anywhere. Come to find out, he is out in the desert in mortal combat with his greatest enemy…one he used to know in eternity who was thrown out of Heaven and is now out to destroy God’s work any way he can. Jesus eventually comes back to civilization and selects his disciples. No lawyers, no doctors, no business people, no PR experts, no secretaries, no charismatic speakers. Fishermen, zealots, and a host of others that on the surface make you scratch your head and wonder, why these guys? They were so common that one writer suggested that you could probably smell the disciples coming before you saw them – if you noticed them at all. Oh yeah, he did not hire any accountants either. The one he chose to manage their meager funds was the one who ultimately betrayed him.
Part 3: The Miraculous
Some time goes by, and everyone begins to see that he can do some pretty incredible things, and that he fears no one. He raised dead, healed sick, made blind see, and many other wondrous things. He would look a high priest, scribe, Pharisee, or someone like that right in the eye, and call him a hypocrite…dead, like bones…children of the devil…children of Hell. Ok, maybe not the most tactful of approaches, but one thing does need to be remembered; he was MUCH harder on the religious establishment than he was on sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, or murderers. He was downright gentle with them. He even went to their parties. But, the religious hierarchy? Katie bar the door!!
As his ministry is coming to a head, he informs his disciples that he must die…by means of crucifixion. Now, crucifixion was perhaps the most dastardly form of execution that mankind has ever come up with. The victim was beaten to the point of near death, then literally nailed to a cross, or sometimes to an actual tree, and left there to die the most miserable of deaths. It is believed that some victims took as long as a week or more to finally die. One very important thing to remember is that crucifixion was reserved for the scum of the earth; murderers, thieves, prisoners of war, those guilty of treason, etc. A Roman citizen scheduled to be executed usually would not have been crucified. If you were crucified, you were scum…no two ways about it. While he was on the cross his accusers tormented him. “Come down from the cross, then we’ll believe”. “He saved others, but can’t save himself”. They “laughed him to scorn”. “He trusted in God that He would deliver him; let him deliver him, IF he delights in him”.
One thing to always remember: Don’t ever consider Jesus’ death a murder…don’t ever let anyone tell you that. Murder is when someone’s life is TAKEN from them against their will. Jesus willingly gave himself up to die for us, but they did not TAKE his life from him. He gave himself over to his accusers and willingly followed God’s plan. Peter at one time said, “Lord we will never allow this to happen to you”. Jesus then reminded him of why he came. The reason for his birth and life, to be sacrificed in our place was in fulfillment of the Father’s will. Jesus DID willingly die in our place…For that we can sing, Hallelujah!!
Ok…he finally died after about six hours on the cross. They took him down and placed him in a borrowed tomb.
Then, human history changes. The greatest miracle of all time has taken place. He is seen alive. “I know that my Redeemer liveth” has finally come to pass. Now… some would have you believe that he somehow survived the crucifixion and did not die at all. Make no mistake about it. The Romans knew how to kill. They were experts at crucifixion and death. So, how do we explain the resurrection other than a miracle from God? We can’t. It was simply the final stage of God’s redemptive plan. His death was a victory, not a defeat. His resurrection was the final fulfillment. If he had not risen, we have a dead Savior, and as Paul says, we are still in our sins and are believing a fantasy.
A few days later, several of his followers are gathered with him on the shore. After speaking to them briefly he is lifted off the Earth, enveloped in a cloud and taken away. Angels come – once again. But this time they don’t announce his birth, but say that one day he will return. Paul said that one day a “trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible”. He will return, not as a baby asleep in a feeding trough; born of a simple teen aged mother; not as the poorest of the poor who had to depend on others for support, not as one who died a humiliating death, but as…”King of kings and Lord of Lords”. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, AMEN.
So…did you get the picture? It seems to be one of almost ridiculous simplicity coupled with unexplainable miracles. It requires two kinds of faith: the simple faith of a child and the Job-like “trust anyway” kind; that and the beautiful, miraculous, mysterious plan of God whereby he sent his only Son to be our Savior… our Messiah.
In Heaven they are singing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood; to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing; blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb forever and ever. Amen”. HMMMM…I wonder if they are using Handel’s arrangements?
Thanks be to God.