MY FIRST MESSIAH PERFORMANCE WAS A UNIVERSITY production augmented by community members. I was one of the latter--a college dropout who didn't know much about music but knew what I liked. The director (I'll call him Mr. Gunther) was passionate and volatile, the type who usually spells trouble for music departments; he had already alienated half the faculty mid-term. But Mr. Gunther loved this music, and over weeks of rehearsal had exhorted and molded the choir into a mean Messiah machine--or at least we thought so.
His advice also was molding, in a different way."I don't care what your religion is," he told us after warm-up on performance night. "But tonight--just for tonight--sing like you believe this." I already did, but was beginning to question why. Why is it that some have faith and some don't? Was it entirely a choice, a "will to believe," or did the Holy Spirit muscle His way in? The performance didn't answer that question, but showed me what (or Who) mattered more.
The first chorus is a ringing proclamation: "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." Each part takes turns asserting, "the mouth of the Lord has spoken it": If God makes a promise, we can take it to the bank. Gross darkness covers the people, the bass informs us (to the accompaniment of low strings swirling like fog). "But the Lord shall arise upon them." As his voice climbs the scale and the minor tone brightens, we hear the dawn.
The fulfillment of God's promise is announced first to lowly shepherds. The air fills with the rustling of wings as though the angels are too excited to hold still. "Glory to God in the highest!" bursts out of the heavenly band, with "Good will!" tossed about in joyful benediction. It's too soon over (but listen as the last angel leaves the sky, in a quiver of violins). The babe grows up and walks among us, leading His flock in pastoral calm. "Come unto Him, all ye that labor ..."
Part II opens with "Behold the Lamb of God," covered in blood. The music itself, with its staggering intervals, lashing chords and jarring dissonances, lays on the stripes. But why this sudden dance tune, incongruously lively? "All we like sheep have gone astray"--can't you hear it? Giddy, foolish sheep, turning every one to his own way, dashing madly toward the devil's pit, skidding faster and faster--until the basses drag the bleeding Messiah forward again: "And the Lord hath laid on Him--" ("On Him! on Him!" every voice echoes in stunned amazement) "the iniquity of us all."
The resurrection does not receive a grand choral anthem; instead the tenor assures us, almost matter-of-factly, that God "did not suffer [His] holy one to see corruption." The King of glory enters heaven to a tune both regal and merry, as the very gates lift up their heads. What's more, His people are destined to follow Him there. "The trumpet shall sound" (and so it does, in a stirring duet with the bass soloist) and we shall be changed into creatures worthy enough to shout, "Worthy is the Lamb." The pounding chorus of "Blessing and honor" deals a joyful death-blow to the notion that heaven consists of bored sitting on clouds and strumming harps: To spend eternity singing such praises to such a Savior will be glory indeed! The incredible "Amen" layers the voices of a multitude, of every tribe and nation, each in his own pitch and tone, woven into perfect harmony by Christ Himself.
At the end of that performance the choir was pumped, all excitedly congratulating each other and our sweating director. At the same time the orchestra was murmuring that Mr. Gunther didn't know how to direct, and the alto soloist resented some of the looks he had given her. I just sat there on the risers for a while, an emotional wreck. No wonder; I'd been given a surround-sound refresher course in the gospel, plus a glimpse of heaven.
The coming of faith is when God inhabits time--the music, the images, the controversies, and the daily grind--and makes it glow with eternity. He was there, and my belief was neither act of will nor involuntary takeover. It was Him, and will be Him, forever and ever. Amen.