Advent Letter - The Messiah

Assistant Rector's House, December 2000

The Revd Eileen McLean, Assistant RectorFor the last few weeks at home we have been playing all our ancient LPs again. This has been a delightful exercise in nostalgia, as we have listened to some music we haven’t heard for years. I came into the house a couple of days ago to hear the strains of ‘O thou that tellest Good Tidings to Zion’ as Jim was playing a nearly thirty year old King’s College version of Handel’s “Messiah”. That distinctive sound took me back instantly and powerfully in time to Advents and Christmases of a long time ago.

But the “Messiah” doesn’t just produce personal memories of the past. It has the capacity in every one of its movements to evoke spiritual memories for the whole People of God. “Messiah” is the Advent music par excellence. It is probably sung more in this pre-Christmas period than at any other time of year. And Part 1, concerned as it is with Old Testament prophecies and the Birth of Jesus, seems to have a message relating very directly not just to the church but to this December 2000 world - a world where warfare and duplicity, confusion, materialism and the shadow of death loom as such significant factors in many lives.

The tunes of “Messiah” echo a message of hope:

  • Comfort ye, comfort ye my people
  • Every valley shall be exalted
  • The crooked made straight
  • The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light

These scriptures were the source of hope for the Jewish people as they looked forward to the coming of their Messiah. As Christians wait and watch in hope throughout Advent we know that these prophecies will give way to the reality - that we will sing “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” and “For unto us a Child is born” and that he is “The prince of Peace”. Our hope is enfleshed in the person of Jesus. In him we “Behold our God” who is the source of all light and peace.

This is the message of hope which Christians bring to the world. In the horror of war-torn nations, in tragedies we can hardly contemplate AND in the insane rush to ‘buy, buy, possess, possess’ which surrounds us in the Nottingham shops, there are words we can say to comfort and assuage longings and give meaning, words which speak of a light brighter than any darkness.

The danger is that we may be cut off in our secure and pious world, behind church walls, speaking only to ourselves. It’s a poignant fact that Handel’s “Messiah” was first performed, not in a church or cathedral nor even in a serious Concert Hall, but in the Fishamble Street Musick Hall in Dublin. And the proceeds were shared by the Society for Relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary and Mercer’s Hospital. And Dean Swift (who disapproved) described one of the singers as “daily losing his voice by intemperance. Scandalous in conversation and behaviour.”

The librettist for Messiah said that Handel had made a “good, fine entertainment out of it”. Which may verge on the blasphemous to those with respectable views of scripture - or of music! But what Handel did was to make those glorious, inspired words accessible to everyone in the most ordinary, even coarse, surroundings. And in this respect isn’t the music hall more like the manger than is the most beauteous of Cathedrals?

Set in the midst of a city, set amongst the rush and tragedy and emptiness which seem inevitable by-products of the pre-Christmas season, we at St Peter’s have Good Tidings to proclaim during Advent that we are waiting expectantly and with longing and with absolute trust that ‘a great light is coming into the world’ who will bring peace and comfort to all.

Eileen McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd December 2000