Coaching From the Angels by James Walker, Director of Music
It seems as though everywhere you turn these days there is a promotion for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Even at All Saints Church! 275 years since its premiere, so many of us are still deeply attracted to Messiah. Sometimes, with music that is so beautiful and so universally loved that it can be heard in shopping malls and elevators, we can miss a really important message. What are the great Hebrew prophets and Gospel writers saying? How can they speak to us today, through the now-comfortable familiarity of Handel?
I believe this Messiah is radically counter-cultural, if we open our eyes and our ears and our hearts.
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.”
This is not some sugarcoated sentiment but a dynamic, radical vision of life in the kingdom of God. Isaiah points us to the Reign of God — the commonwealth of love, in which every creature is recognized as a precious child of God.
“And the glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
All flesh. God’s embrace isn’t just for some, but for all.
This season more than ever, I feel energized to proclaim this good news of the God of love who includes all, to do nothing less than reclaim the Prince of Peace — this Wonderful, Wise and Mighty Messiah.
There were shepherds abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them,
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them,
“Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David,
a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host
praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest
and peace on earth, good will towards all.
I love this angel sequence in Handel’s Messiah. The angel appears to the shepherds, scaring them nearly to death, but reassures them that everything is going to be okay—that there is good and joyful news to share. Then Handel paints the immense fluttering of a great multitude of angels, and a dialog ensues, with the messengers of God giving us the vision of heaven on earth — of peace on earth and goodwill to all.
In the music, you can almost hear the angels coaching the shepherds, “Okay now, repeat after me: ‘Goodwill.’” The shepherds reply, “Goodwill.” This coaching continues until the angel voices merge with the shepherds, together proclaiming God’s all-embracing love.
And then, Handel’s canvas reveals the luminous image of God’s messengers departing to the heavens, and we are left here, in community. The vision has been given to us: glory to God is peace on earth, and the angels are not going to take care of it for us. God has no hands on earth, but ours. God has no feet, no eyes, no ears, no voices, but ours.
I believe this Messiah calls us to join hands and hearts — to seize this moment and build that holy city here on earth — that city whose laws are love, and joy and justice and compassion and laughter and peace and reconciliation.
May this Messiah be a blessing and a challenge for us this season.