He never considered forOriginal, Bonnie Wilks
a second the standing
ovations, the wild applause,
the tears of joy, the years
of popular longevity, or the
glorious manifest presence
of the living God.
Tattered velvet slippers
shuffled across the cold stone
floor at midnight, Handel frantically
searched by candlelight
for inkwell, pen, and paper
trying to keep pace
with the Holy muse —
thundering in his head.
Even if you’re not a fan, Christmas is hard to resist. I was not at all surprised to discover that world-famous scientist and atheist, well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design, Richard Dawkins, admitted that he does indeed celebrate Christmas—and enjoys singing traditional Christmas carols each festive season.
“I am perfectly happy to say Merry Christmas to everybody on Christmas day,” Dawkins said.
“I might sing Christmas carols—once I was privileged to be invited to Kings College, Cambridge, for their Christmas carols and loved it. I actually love most of the genuine Christmas carols. I can’t bear “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and you might think from that that I was religious, that I can’t bear the ones that make no mention of religion. But I just think they are dreadful tunes and even more dreadful words. I like the traditional Christmas carols.”
Wow! I couldn’t agree more. It’s the sacred Christmas music that moves me. Christmas is that single time of year when the world pauses, no matter our miserable and desperate state, to acknowledge that Jesus was born. Time stopped, and times stops still—every year to see Him again—if only a glimpse on the lawn of a church nativity scene. We feel His presence amid the din and chaos of consumerism.
Music prepares our hearts
For the true believer and disciple, the sacrament of Advent provides the sweetest opportunity to prepare room in our hearts afresh for a Jewish baby born humbly but with a heavenly and royal heritage. One of the most common ways we feel his presence in this season is through sacred music. I love it! One of my favorites of the season is Handel’s “Messiah.” The famous “Hallelujah Chorus” is the most recognizable piece of music worldwide. Of course, it is!
In his book, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh explains that Handel had very little desire to eat during the 24 days he wrote the oratorio. Some say tears rolled down the composer’s cheeks as he finished constructing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
He exclaimed, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself.”
The birth of this incredible musical work occurred when 56-year-old Handel faced failure and bankruptcy. The Church of England became critical of his work, and it looked like his career was dwindling to an unremarkable end.
Born in Germany, Handel’s father carved a path for his son to study law. The boy, however, had an aptitude for music. As a secret from his father, Handel’s mother bought him a harpsichord and hid it in the attic for him to practice. At the tender age of twelve, Handel wrote his first musical piece.
In 1712, Handel picked up his life and moved to England. He never returned to Germany. Although he experienced successes through various operas and sacred operas, Kavanaugh notes that Handel’s failures threatened to destroy him: “His occasional commercial successes soon met with financial disaster. He drove himself relentlessly to recover from one failure after another, and finally, his health began to fail. Debt overwhelmed him in 1741. It seemed certain he would land in a dreaded debtor’s prison.”
In 1741 an admirer, Charles Jennens, Jr., gave him a libretto (a text) for a sacred musical piece. It was a compilation of Bible verses, concentrating on the Messiah from the Old and New Testaments. At the same time, a charity in Dublin offered him money to write something for a charity performance. “Messiah” was born, and it became very successful.
Many overlook Jennens’ part in this amazing masterpiece. He is the one responsible for the thorough biblical text. He arranged the verses about Jesus the Messiah so that Handel could correlate the musical score.
The libretto of “Messiah” is compiled of 73 verses from the King James Version of the Bible—42 from the Old Testament, 31 from the New—all pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the only Anointed One, the true Messiah of the Jews and all nations.
The first performance
“Messiah” was first performed in Dublin in 1742. It was a benefit concert for charity. Tickets were sold, and the musical was packed. The auditorium held 600 people, but the guests had special instructions to squeeze 100 more people into the audience. The ladies were asked not to wear hoops under their dresses, and the men were to leave their swords at home. Most intriguing of all, the proceeds of this benevolent event freed 142 men from debtors’ prisons.
Wow, 142 men were liberated upon its debut!
I paused with reverence when I read this bit of interesting history. It took time to let that thought soak in. I must say this bit of information has been seriously underestimated.
In God’s miraculous design, the first-fruit offering of the “Messiah” was given to release prisoners! It was an earthly and physical demonstration and foretelling of the coming of spiritual release. As prisoners of sin, we can experience the message of Christmas by listening to the gospel message of the “Messiah.” I might say that this indeed was Handel’s heart as well—for listeners to become partakers and changed and not just entertained by his music.
Some believe that King George II was present at the first performance of “Messiah” in London and fell asleep at the beginning of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” In the end, he suddenly stood to his feet, thinking it was his cue. To this day, it is the custom. If you have ever attended an arousing performance, you understand why standing is appropriate.
Handel’s divine masterpiece, now a classic Christmas and Easter tradition, was written for the greater purpose—to set prisoners free. Handel remarked about his hearers: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”
As slaves set free from the chains of sin and death, grab the opportunity to rise to the heights of heaven this Advent season by hearing the joy of Christmas as prisoners of hope with new ears. Allow the sacred music to wash over you with liberty and freedom. The songs of Christmas are meant to set us free. Take the full opportunity to ascend in praise and adoration of God’s indescribable gift, the Messiah.
We join with heaven’s chorus, praising You today! Hallelujah!, Hallelujah!
My Guest Today
Bonnie Wilks is a wife, mother, grandmother, writer, and veteran missionary. She and her husband pioneered the Messianic Jewish Bible Institutes and traveled with this ministry for 22 years. They lived 9 years abroad and still travel internationally extensively. Wayne, Bonnie’s husband, currently serves as Executive Pastor of Jewish Ministries at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas. Bonnie spends most of her time doting on her daughter, son-in-love, and two adorable grandchildren. Bonnie’s book, Sabbath, a Gift of Time, is available at Gateway Church Books or Amazon. You will find many poems, essays, articles, devotionals, and Christian apologetics, along with beautiful, original photography by Bonnie on her blog.