The Best Messiah

An old friend of mine was recently praised in the NY Times for leading what a music review called “the best ‘Messiah’ in New York.”  One of the pleasures of living in Philadelphia is indulging in a kind of ironic smugness that pities New Yorkers for having to worry about where to find the best Messiah.  How do they manage?

My old friend and I grew up singing ‘Messiah’ in the same church, and I have no doubt that the version of the oratorio he leads is exquisite.  The reviewer made two deeply telling observations about the performance.  He wrote that as led by my friend, the “formal concert became a collective rite,” which is lovely thing to say about a concert of sacred music.  And about the arias, which were sung not by operatic soloists, but by rank and file members of the choir, the reviewer wrote that they “were transformed beyond the usual displays of sumptuous vocalism; they were urgent, even desperate communication.”  I can hardly think of more poignant praise, considering the work in question. (“NY Times, 6 December, 2018, by Zachary Woolfe, “This is the Best ‘Messiah’ in New York”)

The search for the “best Messiah” provides a nice turn of phrase for the religious context in which we live these days.  Americans are less and less interested in what institutional religion teaches about God, or Jesus, or any other relational arrangements of the divine.  That is to say, people care less and less about what preachers have to tell them from pulpits.  Which is to say, that I know quite literally where I stand.  The current trend looks to me a bit more like an individualistic search for the best messiah you can find, to borrow the phrase from the Times.  Find a messiah that works for you and stick with it as long as it works.  But if your messiah stops working for you, or you grow tired of it, or it lets you down, then go out and look again for a new messiah.  Maybe the best one for the rest of New York or Philadelphia isn’t the best  messiah for you.  But there are plenty of them out there; just find the messiah that seems best for you.  If only God was an oratorio.

Something about the particular performance of the oratorio that reviewer wrote about in the Times transformed it from a concert to a “collective rite.”  I think what he meant was that it became a kind of religious experience that was clearly and deliberately performed for the glory of God.  But you can’t say that about a concert in the pages of the New York Times, so you have to call it “a collective rite.”

And something about the singing of those soloists transformed the arias into “urgent, even desperate communication.” 

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.

But who may abide the day of his coming?

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion; arise, shine, for thy light has come!

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.

How marvelous to hear in these prophetic words the urgent, desperate communication they are surely meant to convey.

One text that Handel did not set to music in his oratorio is the well known passage from Philippians that we heard today: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”  I must confess that in all the years I have heard and read and sung these words, I have never once found anything urgent or desperate in them.  

If you want urgency you turn to John the Baptist, who will heap you in with a brood of vipers, and warn you that even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree, and threaten that the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire!  You won’t find old John telling you to “be careful for nothing;” or in the more modern translation, “do not worry about anything;” or in recent vernacular, “don’t worry, be happy!”

But I realize that there is an urgent, desperate message embedded in St. Paul’s otherwise happy-go-lucky message to the Philippians, which has always been there on the page to catch my eye or my ear, but that I have been reading right past it.  It’s there in verse 5, where we read the message in four words:  “The Lord is near,” ... an assertion that would not always be considered good reason to put worry aside.  This single sentence, “The Lord is near,” seems almost always to be translated as we read it this morning.  Older translations render it similarly as, “the Lord is at hand.”   Or, some newer versions as “the Lord is coming soon.”  And I would say that this sentence counts as urgent, even desperate communication… if we have ears to hear it.  The Lord is near!

The problem with this sentence is that it is so hard for us to believe that the Lord is near.  And I strongly suspect that part of the reason so many people are willing to go off in search of the best messiah they can find is because this promise of the old Messiah has begun to seem unlikely or far-fetched.  How can people believe these days that the Lord is near?  How can we believe it?

And I think the reviewer in the Times was onto something in the two important observations he made about the performance of ‘Messiah’ he heard: he was moved because he found himself, quite unexpectedly, not in a concert but in a ritual that was shaping a community.  And within that ritual, he heard voices that conveyed with unmistakable authenticity the urgent, even desperate, prophetic revelation of the Good News of the coming of Jesus Christ, that the Lord is at hand.  That is to say, that the concert my friend was leading - which was a church choir singing in a church - was actually doing the work of the church: proclaiming in sacred ritual the urgent, desperate Good News that the Lord is near.

Advent is the season of the year when the church distills in all her rites and all her communications the urgency and desperation of the message that the Lord is at hand, that he is coming soon.  These few weeks are given the unenviable task of competing with the madness of a secularly marketed “Christmas season” that is completely and totally uninterested in the thought that the Lord is near.  And the church carries the burden during these weeks of calling to mind, for those who will listen, the promise that God is with us; that Christ will make himself known; that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; that a young woman, full of grace, could become the Mother of God’s Son; and that a good man could treat her with the respect and dignity she deserved; that the Spirit has not deserted us; that the angels still have something to tell us; that the heavens themselves twinkle in praise of God’s revelation of himself; that God’s self-disclosure is most readily heard by the poor and the simple; but that the wealthy and powerful who seek wisdom may discern it too; that cruelty cannot prevent the Lord from revealing himself to us; that the rulers of this world will not prevail over the Word of God, even in the weakness of its infancy; that nothing will impede the delivery of this Good News; that God’s desire in sending his Son to be among his people is to bring joy and peace to the face of the whole earth; that the Lord is near, close at hand, and coming soon.

How can we believe this?  

Unexpectedly, one way has been suggested to us by a music reviewer in the New York Times: by engaging in the church’s collective rites, and by listening for the urgency and the desperation proclaimed there.

We can believe what is otherwise hard to believe when we come together to practice the rite that Christ himself gave us, to “do this” in remembrance of him, and when we recall the sacred story with an urgency and desperation that reminds us, in a world that is floundering to identify what truth is, that this is the Truth from above.

We believe it because when we sing “O come, O come Emmanuel,” the pleading fits not only our voices and our ears, but our circumstances, in a world that so plainly needs a Prince of Peace, a Wisdom, and a Dayspring from on high.

We believe it when we allow our mouths to implore, “Come thou long expected Jesus,” and the prayer that God has planted within his church sounds in tune.

We believe it when we see ourselves in the description of the “people that walked in darkness,” and yet we know that here, in the rites that draw us for an hour or so into a Christian community of the most profound kind, we have seen a great light!  And we rejoice: arise, shine, for our light has come!

God reveals the Truth to us in ritual, with urgent, desperate communication, in which even the most benign sentiment of joyfulness also brings with it the promise that the Lord is near!

Several times I went back to read and re-read the review of that performance of ‘Messiah.’  But it took a while for me to notice the little synopsis that the Times provides right beneath the headline on its website, and where an estimation of the performance is provided in language that appears nowhere else in the review.  There, the editors have written that “the forces of Trinity Wall Street put on a gritty, fearless rendition of the holiday tradition.”  And I admit that this assessment left me feeling a little bit jealous, since in Philadelphia, gritty is supposed to be our thing.  But more to the point, “gritty and fearless” seem like words that John the Baptist would be comfortable with.  In fact I can almost hear him suggesting that it is with just such an outlook - gritty and fearless - that we look for the promise that the Lord is near.

Rejoice in the Lord, to be sure!  Be careful for nothing!  But come to the rite, and be part of it.  Open your ears and lift your voices with some measure of urgent desperation as we wonder who may abide the day of his coming!  Be gritty and fearless, for the Lord is at hand, he is coming soon.  Arise!  Shine!  For thy light is coming!  The Lord is near!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 December 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 16, 2018 .