Listening to Handel While the Nations Rage

george-frideric-handelThe song in my head isn’t on Spotify’s top playlists, but a simple search there provides dozens of versions. Enduringly relevant, the original text (Psalm 2) was written in Hebrew a thousand years before Christ. Its English translation came some 1600 years after him. George Frederick Handel composed the melody, an aria for bass, in 1747.

Why do the nations so furiously rage together?  And why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Handel’s Messiah is a favorite during the Christmas and Lenten seasons. Its libretto brings the scriptures beautifully alive as one returns to it year after year. At Christmas, the sections concerning Christ’s nativity touch the heart; at Lent, “He was despised” can take us deep into the mystery of the Savior’s agony.

This season, taking in the Messiah once again, I recalled the introduction of Part II No. 40 while watching the news. In the national moment all aflutter with the insults of outgoing and incoming presidents and the bravado of tyrants before press conference cameras, I hear the twittering of Handel’s violins.And when I discovered celebrated flute player Andy Findon’s rendition of “Why Do the Nations Rage,” its breathy, fluttering notes juxtaposed against the world scene seemed to speak more succinctly than words of how trivial anything but the will of God really is.

Why do the nations so furiously rage together? And why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Serious citizens stay in touch with current events, but many of us are dissatisfied enough with the current situation to reduce the amount of contentious media we consume, to seek common ground with opponents, and, while the nations rage, to work harder at bringing peace closer to home, in our own families and communities.

The liturgical calendar supports this endeavor, steeping us prayerfully in things more permanent than the drama of the day. At the same time, its cycle of movement through salvation history enables us to participate actively in current events without succumbing to anger, diatribe or overwhelming fear. (When we allow it—we’re not polished and perfect as we walk this breadcrumb trail.)

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Circumcision of Christ, Mengolion of Basil II, 979-984

On New Year’s Day we celebrated the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. The gospel reading tells us that eight days after Christ’s birth, Mary and Joseph took the infant to the temple to be circumcised in accordance with Jewish law.

Herod, king of Judea, could view the temple from his palace, but he’d never have expected the child born “King of the Jews,” whom he’d later try to murder as he had his own grandson, was right under his nose.  Messiah, Part II, No. 42, Recitative for tenor:

He that dwelleth in Heav’n shall laugh them to scorn; The Lord shall have them in derision.

Who is more powerful, the baby or the king? The baby is God’s incarnate Son, and he will show himself to possess a strength unheard of by the rulers of this world. In the vulnerability of love he will show himself strong enough to lay down his life for his friends. In his own timing and in his own way he will side with those who know they are sinners and conquer the favorite instrument of every tyrant: death itself.

Handel’s Messiah reminds us that Christ is the God of history, a history that will culminate in his appearance at the end of time He turns evil into good and his kingdom is eternal.  Part II, No. 44, Hallelujah Chorus:

And he shall reign forever and ever.

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For jazz fans, here’s Al Jarreau’s interpretation of Why Do the Nations Rage?

For fun: Christmas Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus

 

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