We know the Messiah of which Handel’s oratorio speaks. It’s Jesus. The Christ. Born to Mary, in Bethlehem.
Yet in the whole work – 53 movements, and roughly 3 hours in its entirety, we never hear Jesus’ voice. The text tells us of the promise of the Messiah and the coming of the Messiah. It goes on to tell about the ministry of the Messiah, the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah, and of the Messiah’s exaltation and eternal reign.
But it is all told by indirection – the words of prophets and angels and gospel writers. The infant Christ grows, but in Handel’s oratorio we don’t hear Messiah teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. We will not hear his seven last words from the cross. He doesn’t speak at the empty tomb.
We never hear the voice of Jesus himself. The whole of the story is told by the voices of others.
Some of the first voices I ever heard sing this piece came from my grandparents’ living room. My music minister uncle began a tradition, at some point, of bringing the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah to Christmas dinner. And sometime between dinner and pecan pie, he would gather my accompanist mother, my alto aunt, my dad – a fine bass who really shouldn’t try the tenor line – and my grandmother, the longtime soprano from the church choir of First Baptist Palatka. Together they would sing portions of the Messiah. Now you can imagine the reactions through my childhood and adolescence to this strange Sherouse quirk that interrupted whatever movie we were trying to watch in the next room. And I’m sure you can picture the annoyance and eye rolls as I listened to family try to sing a piece intended for a much larger choir. But at some point it all gave way to an appreciation and admiration of the tradition, and especially for what the annual Messiah sing meant to my grandfather, watching from the burnt orange couch. No matter how shaky a vocal run or how sharp a tenor note, Grandpa would be beaming the whole time.
Grandpa last heard the family Messiah sing in Christmas of 2000, as he passed away in December of 2001, with a funeral that occurred on the morning of Christmas Eve. I think it was that memory of what it meant to him that prompted us to gather and sing again, after his funeral that day. Because we recognized that this story and music was also evident in him – a career postal worker who never sang a note.
We might think the story should be told by those specially trained or gifted. Those who have rehearsed or studied to unite their voices in harmony. But the first voices to tell the story, don’t forget, were the voices of shepherds.
Their voices were hoarse from the night air, and tired from years of herding and shouting at sheep. Their voices knew weariness and suffering. They might have even begun to think it’s a story that was never meant for them. Yet these are the ones who depart with the message “Unto us a child is born… Unto us a son is given…”
The gospel of Luke says the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.
I imagine their voices cracked, their breathing grew shallow at times. But we know they told the story. We know it because all these years later it reaches us. And all because the shepherds left the stable and went back to the fields changed by what they had encountered behind the Bethlehem barn. They were filled up with something that made them believe that it was in them to tell the story.
In Advent, we call it joy – the joy of Christ’s coming that sends us all away glorifying God.
Maybe you’ve heard of an excellent new book entitled The Book of Joy – an extended conversation between His Holiness the Dali Lama and the Archbishop Desmund Tutu. The book is about the meaning of joy and begins with a simple question: Why are people in our world not more joyful? They conclude it’s largely because we have confused happiness with joy.
In the words of Desmund Tutu: “It’s wonderful to discover that what we want is not actually happiness. It’s not actually what I would speak of, I would speak of joy. Joy subsumes happiness. Joy is the far greater thing. Think of a mother who is going to give birth… mothers know they are going to have pain, the great pain of giving birth… And even after the most painful labor, once the baby is here, you can’t measure the woman’s joy.”
The shepherds came into contact with that joy that night, they heard it sung by angels, and heard it from the joyous Mother Mary. And then they believed that the song they heard and the story they are told could be shared through their lives.
In a world where they must have felt very small, with little influence and low volume, they came to understand that the story of Christ, God-with-us, needed not only the voices of prophets and angels, but the voices of shepherds, too
In our world of suffering, with so many vulnerable people, and all the time a new Herod out there threatening the people God so loves, we are here encountering great joy.
Joy that a child is born, and that with this child is the possibility that everything can change.
Joy that sends us back to the places we live and work and move as people who have encountered a Savior.
Joy at the possibility that at any moment, on any night, something could flash against the sky again, and we could find ourselves caught up in the story of God’s love born on earth.
So don’t hesitate. Take a deep breath from way down in your diaphragm, and however shaky you feel, let that message ring out.
Most people never hear Jesus’ voice. But how many people can hear yours?
Thanks to Woody Garner for this clip of the closing “Hallelujah” Chorus from the presentation of Messiah