Last Sunday, Marc and I went to hear Handel’s “Messiah” performed in Rosary Cathedral by the Toledo Symphony and several combined choirs. It was spectacular.
This was our second time, so we knew from last year to get there about an hour early if we wanted good seats and a parking spot. The cathedral was already half full when we got there, and by the time the performance started, every seat was filled. You’ve got to wonder, “Why would so many people pay a fair amount of money and set aside a Sunday afternoon, right before Christmas, to sit for three hours on hard benches to listen to something they could hear in the comfort of their own homes on Spotify or on their stereo?”
The sheer beauty of the music and the setting is the obvious reason. But, maybe there’s more to it. Maybe it’s because every time you hear “Messiah” performed, you hear it in a different way. Partly that’s because there is actually no one “right” way to perform “Messiah”; there’s no definitive version of it. Handel himself changed it every time he revived it from an earlier season. He explained that he didn’t change it to improve it. He simply changed it to incorporate new trends in music, changes in his own musical sensibilities, and the changing needs of audiences and musicians. Over the years, performers have felt free to put their own touches on it. So, every time you hear “Messiah” performed live, you’re likely to hear it performed in a new way.
But, we’re also likely to understand it in a new way, depending on what’s happening in our own lives. One year the “Hallelujah Chorus” may be just what you need to express the joy you’re feeling. Other years, “He Shall Feed His Flock” or “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” may offer the comfort and assurance your soul is hungry for.
Even though Handel composed “Messiah” in 1741, the music and the Scripture passages it’s based on continue to speak to us, even though we live in a very different world. Music is like that. Songs are like that. A song is written by someone who draws on their knowledge and their life experiences. Something about that song connects with our lives and becomes meaningful to us. As our lives change, it take son new meaning.
Mary’s song is like that. When we read it as we did today, we hear it as though it stands on its own, with no connection to Mary’s past or her experiences, and with no connection to the future—Mary’s future or those future listeners, like us, who will hear her song. But Mary’s song is rooted in her deep connections with the past of her people and her own life experiences, and it continues to connect with our world today.
The immediate context of Mary’s song is her encounter with Elizabeth. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, Mary had gone to visit Elizabeth and at the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s baby leaped in her womb for joy, and Elizabeth broke out into a song of praise and blessing and gratitude that she was in the presence of her Lord—Mary’s unborn baby. Mary’s song is a response to Elizabeth’s joyous recognition of Mary’s state and the identity of Mary’s baby.
Mary responds with exuberance equal to Elizabeth’s. She begins with joy at her own situation: that God has seen her—chosen her—even though she is young and poor, and certainly not the most likely choice to bear, deliver, and raise the Son of God. She rejoices that from this lowly state she will be remembered and called blessed, not just by the people around her but by all generations in the future, for what God has done for her. She doesn’t have the welfare of the entire world on her mind at the moment. She’s over the moon with joy at what God has done for her.
Bu then her song moves beyond her own changed circumstances to what God has done for the world. In God’s mercy for those who love and revere God, the world is now a different place. Those with arrogant attitudes have been knocked off their self-claimed pedestals. Those in power have had their power removed. Those whose wealth filled their bellies while other stomachs went empty have been stripped of their riches. The lowly and the hungry have been lifted up and filled.
Notice the past tense of these words. Mary sings not of something that will happen, but what has already happened. God acted in the moment that Mary accepted her commission to be the mother of the Son of God, and the ills of a world steeped in sin were reversed.
Now, we may look around us and ask, “Really?” How can Mary sing as though these things have already been accomplished? Two thousand years later, there is still so much poverty in the world—so much violence, so many in power whose arrogance and wealth lead them to a single-minded focus on maintaining their own privilege, turning a blind eye to the needs of the hungry and trampling on the rights of the lowly.
That is true. But, it is also true that in God’s sending the Savior, the process toward a transformed world began. It began and continues in the hearts and minds, words and deeds of those who truly follow the one whom Mary was carrying. This is why we describe ourselves as believers in the “now and not yet.” God worked in the past, and God continues to work now, God’s work is not yet complete, bur with Jesus’ conception, the countdown clock began ticking, and it is only a matter of time until the work God began is fully accomplished.
Mary didn’t see any dramatic changes in the world the moment she became pregnant. The poor were still poor. The Romans were still in power. The arrogant were still proud and obnoxious. But she knew the promises that God had made and kept in the past. She knew the stories her people had told before her. She knew the songs of other women who had birthed great leaders after unexpected pregnancies—women like Hannah, who prayed for a child and became the mother of Samuel.
Perhaps her own mother had sung Hannah’s song to Mary: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. . . The Lord raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor . . . He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness . . . The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
Maybe Mary sang that song to herself as she made the trip to Elizabeth’s house. Maybe when Mary was greeted by Elizabeth’s Spirit-inspired joy, her own song sprang out of the one she had learned at her mother’s knee. Hannah’s situation wasn’t identical to Mary’s, but Hannah’s song met Mary’s experience and out of it grew a new song, rooted in the old one. The song that Hannah sang a thousand years before informed and inspired a song for Mary’s present.
I also wonder if Mary continued to sing her song as Jesus grew and she thought about all that the angel had told her about her boy—that he was the One by whom all God’s promises were being fulfilled. I wonder if that song sustained her during the difficult times—when the neighbors said Jesus was crazy, when she heard of the attempts to stone him. I wonder if she clung to that song as she stood by his cross, watching her beloved son die. I wonder if it returned to her with even greater power after the resurrection, as she gathered with his disciples and witnessed the birth of the Church that would be his body in the world. Our songs are rooted in the past and their significance changes in our present.
One of my favorite hymns is “Here I Am, Lord.” It was written in 1981—fairly recently as hymns go, but it’s inspired by the ancient words of Isaiah. Isaiah describes a vision he’d had in which he saw the Lord, and he was pierced by the knowledge of his own unworthiness. But then, Isaiah says, “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
When I first learned that song, I just thought it was really pretty. I liked the way it alternated between God speaking and a person answering. I probably didn’t know the story of Isaiah that inspired it at first. But over time I did come to know that story, and I also came to feel my own unworthiness more acutely. As the years went by, I also felt a growing desire to better serve God, but I didn’t know what that meant. At some point, that song began to touch that yearning in a way that made me tear up every time we sang it in church.
Then, in the spring of 2009, I heard my call to ministry. Like most people who hear such a call, I resisted it. I struggled with it. I went through several months of discernment with my pastor until, one Friday afternoon in October, I was ready to say “yes” to my call to ordained ministry.
That Friday evening, I wrote my letter to the District Superintendent, asking to be admitted to the candidacy process. I mailed it on Saturday. On Sunday, I went to church and saw in the bulletin that we would be singing “Here I Am, Lord.” As emotionally raw as I felt over accepting the call that I still thought might have been a mistake on God’s part, I couldn’t imagine how I’d get through that hymn without the floodgates opening up. But when the time came, I sang it differently than I had ever sung it before. I sang it with joy.
That song’s meaning has continued to change for me as my life and work have changed. It has moved from being simply a pretty song I liked singing to an expression of my willingness to serve God and to know what God wants of me, to a reminder of my commitment to the work God has called me to and trust that God will be with me as I do it: “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”
What songs do you cherish? Which ones draw on the wisdom of the past to help you in the present? Maybe your grandmother sang “In the Garden” to you, as mine did. At first it was just a song you enjoyed singing with Grandma. It took on new meaning after you learned the story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden—the story that inspired the author of the song. Then you came to know and love Jesus. You developed a personal relationship with him, and that song echoed your experience of spending time with him, regardless of whether that time was spent in a garden or not. You heard the assurance that you are his very own, either with a calm feeling of confidence or a deep sense of relief, depending on what was happening in your life. A song that was written in 1913, rooted in Scripture, speaks to us today and continues to speak to us over time.
Handel and the lyricist of “Messiah” used the words of Scripture to create a masterpiece of song. Scripture gives us beautiful songs, including Mary’s, to use as the basis for our own expressions of the joy, trust, and hope made possible by the coming of the Christ Child. At the end of his manuscript of “Messiah,” Handel penned these letters: “SDG,” Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone the glory.” As we sing our songs, may we join with Mary in giving God the glory for the great things God has done, is doing, and will do through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young