Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Cure and Handel's "Messiah"

When you are bopping and bouncing along to The Cure on the way home, about boys not crying and love cats, you will, when you get home, pick up the orange and black fluffball curling around you to welcome you, hold her to your face, nose to moist quivering nose, look into her eyes, let her whiskers tickle you, and sing with love,
You're so wonderfully wonderfully wonderfully
Wonderfully pretty!
(or in her case: one flea, one flea, one flea, one flea spitty)
then dance around belting out just like heaven while someone else intros drums with wooden spoons and Milo tins and another plays air guitar with the chopping board, until she turns away from these humans in disgust and scans the vicinity for food.

Then you will remix Christmas carols with dragostea din tei, do the nu mă nu mă to each other, periodically say "Heelloo" to the mixing bowls and whip up colourful little chocolatey Christmas treats.

Then after the kitchen, the house, your clothes, your fingers, your hair smell of the aforementioned Christmas goodies, and you are tired and happy, you will put the kettle on, potter to a cushy chair with a cuppa and a plate of cookies and settle down for the annual listen to Handel's "Messiah".

There are too many versions of the Oratorio floating around (Handel always edited it to suit the needs of the moment) to decide which I like best. My dream team for "Messiah" is somewhat conventional: the interpretation of Masaaki Suzuki, the emotionally mature mezzo of Janet Baker or Anne Sofie von Otter, the deep dire baritone of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and beautifully strong countertenor of a younger Michael Chance.

Of course, "Messiah" isn't really an oratorio for just Christmas.

The story about Handel's "Messiah" is this: unlike the pious Lutheran JS Bach, history tells us that Georg Friedrich Händel was hardly a religious man. His life's goal was popularity, riches and the bright lights of the urban capitals of the civilised world. Unfortunately, both fame and fortunate eluded the man and Handel was at a low point in his life; his opera company had failed, he had suffered a mild stroke, was denounced as an infidel by the church authorities and was almost bankrupt.

Along came the staunchly protestant Charles Jennens who, to challenge the claims of the deists, had written a libretto about the life of a man called Jesus: from prophecies of his birth, to his miraculous virgin birth, to his horrendous death, to his victorious resurrection and as a consequence, the hope of humans for the future. Would Handel set the words to music for some cold hard cash and a safe place away from the debtor's prison? Oo'er. Don't mind if I do said Handel and scribbled off the score in less than a month.

So it's actually good for any time of the year, and Christmas is a good time as any.

Charles Jennens' own explanation for the flow of his libretto is apparently this:
(i) The prophecy of Salvation;
(ii) the prophecy of the coming of Messiah and the question, despite (i), of what this may portend for the World;
(iii) the prophecy of the Virgin Birth;
(iv) the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds;
(v) Christ's redemptive miracles on earth.

(i) The redemptive sacrifice, the scourging and the agony on the cross;
(ii) His sacrificial death, His passage through Hell and Resurrection;
(iii) His Ascension;
(iv) God discloses his identity in Heaven;
(v) Whitsun, the gift of tongues, the beginning of evangelism;
(vi) the world and its rulers reject the Gospel;
(vii) God's triumph.

(i) The promise of bodily resurrection and redemption from Adam's fall;
(ii) the Day of Judgement and general Resurrection;
(iii) the victory over death and sin;
(iv) the glorification of the Messianic victim.
Fit the structure to the libretto. Lovely.

Then fit the libretto to verses in the Bible (the libretto is made up purely of verses from Scripture). Check out how Jennens arranges them together to form beautiful threads of shorthand biblical theology. Groovy.

Which is why I love Handel's "Messiah" so much. Not for the dream team (even if they could get together), not so much for the truly wonderful music (which sends people humming every time they get to those passages in Bible studies) but for the power of words themselves. Powerful because of their truth.

Is Christianity just a fictional metanarrative? Is it merely a story made up by humans to feel better about themselves? Is it just one of the many ways to interpret the world and the live life? Is it just a useful lie to believe in, just to have the strength to live and die peacefully?

Look at the Bible. Look at the tens of authors from mind-blowingly different cultures, languages and nations. Look at the one coherent story told by all of them over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Look at the predictions and prophecies made about Jesus thousands of years before he was born. Look how he fulfilled every single one of them in a way that could never have been imagined or collusively arranged.

If all arrows point to the Bible story being true, then other claims to truth and other interpretations of reality cannot be true. Then humanity is under a death penalty. And submission to God and trust in Jesus' death is the only way to gain pardon from it.

It's pretty darned scary and amazing at the same time.


Not my rockstar cat

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