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Were this oratorio to be written today, we might expect the composer to continue with the theme of the Nativity of Christ. Perhaps he might tell some stories about the wise men who brought gifts (which were surely purchased from a store that said “Merry CHRIST-mas”), and then segue to a medley of favorite Christmas carols.
This is not, however, the tactic chosen by Jennens and Handel as they compiled the text for Messiah. Rather, the theme they chose to carry over from Luke’s account of Christ’s birth was that of rejoicing!
#16: Air (Soprano)
Zechariah 9:9-10 — Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is the righteous Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.
#17: Recitative (Alto)
Isaiah 35:5-6 — Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
From the Block essay (my comments in italics):
By means of an aria, a recitative, a second aria, and then a climactic chorus, texts ##16-19 provide commentary on the chorus (meaning “Glory to God”, which we looked at yesterday). Unlike contemporary western Christianity, which each December indulges in an orgy of sappy and sentimental pseudo-Christian rites, Jennens moves quickly from the nativity to a description of the life and ministry of Jesus. Citing Zech. 9:9-10, #16 restates the thesis: the Messiah is the righteous Saviour who has come to speak peace to the nations (the KJV uses the word “heathen”; the Greek word “goy” is usually translated “nations”; see Strong’s #1471). In the ministry of Jesus this involves two types of activities, as summarized in ##17-18. Citing Isaiah 35:5-6, the recitative describes the healing ministry of the Messiah. Citing Isaiah 40:11 and Matthew 11:28-29 (which we’ll see tomorrow), the soprano aria celebrates his pastoral ministry, which involves feeding the flock, tenderly caring for the lambs, and gently leading those with young. With the Matthean citation the aria applies the gracious message to the hearers, inviting them come to the Messiah and find in him the perfect shepherd. The concluding chorus concludes the citation by giving the rationale for the invitation: the Messiah places no heavy burdens on his people.
The text of Messiah goes directly from the rejoicing at the announcement of Christ’s birth to the rejoicing at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passion Week. The Zechariah passage is one of the most remarkable prophecies regarding Jesus Christ as the Messiah, though much of it has been left out of the libretto. Here is the passage in its entirety:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Humble and riding on the foal of a donkey? Doesn’t sound much like a mighty ruler, but this is exactly how Jesus began the final week of his life (recorded in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15). Imagine being a disciple told to walk into town and steal a donkey and her colt, saying simply “The Lord needs them, but we’ll bring them back soon” if anyone confronted them. This is exactly what happened! The disciples did not immediately understand the strange request, but they did it anyway. May we demonstrate such faith!
According to Zechariah, the King who came bearing salvation while riding on the colt of a donkey would be the same eternal and universal Messiah of whom the other prophets had spoken. When Jesus entered in this way and the people acknowledged Him as their long-expected Messiah, He knowingly allowed Himself to be worshiped as God. This rules out the possibility of his being merely a great human teacher.
Similarly, Isaiah 35:5-6, the text for the following recitative, the prophet lists a series of specific miraculous signs (curing the blind, deaf, lame, and mute) that would identify the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled this prophecy in part when He performed these miracles during His earthly ministry, but its ultimate fulfillment will come when He returns to establish the new heaven and the new earth, when death and infirmity will be no more!
By emphasizing their understanding that all of Scripture — including the Nativity — is centered on Christ and the Cross, and that the fulfillment of every promise is found in Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jennens and Handel provide a good model for how we ought to approach the Advent season. Yes, we should rejoice in Christ’s birth. Yes, many Christmas carols provide a great way for us to do this. Yes, focusing on what God has given us in his Son will stir in us a Spirit-led desire to give to others.
But our focus must never be on our celebrations, on our gifts, on our music. It’s the “our” that is the problem! When we make Christmas about ourselves, we miss out on the true meaning of Christmas. The Messiah came to us as a baby, taking on flesh and sharing in our human nature so that He might truly defeat sin by facing and overcoming by the power of the Holy Spirit every temptation common to man. He came do die, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
And, contrary to the popular thinking of Western Christianity, that has absolutely nothing to do with consumerism.