24 days. Most music historians believe that Handel penned his famous—and now ubiquitous during the Christmas season—Messiah in a mere 24 days. What makes the composer Handel’s work during those three weeks even more astonishing is that the 259-page original score betrays only a few mistakes. While Handel drew on work he had previously composed, editing and repurposing previous work, the melodies of Messiah shine set to their biblical text. 

The selections of scripture used in Handel’s Messiah trumpet the divinity of Christ, even as its eighteenth-century audience began to face the rise of rationalist atheism. The text in Messiah functions as a meditation, rather than a narrative. The use of scripture does not present a linear account of the story of the life of Jesus laid out as a drama, rather, the composition invites the listen to ask the question: who is he? What is the messiah?


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This is the question posed by the disciples of John the Baptist in this Sunday’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Now it must be said that John the Baptist did not need to hear the answer from Christ, he knew already. John was the forerunner; his heart and very life imbued with the grace and confidence of the Holy Spirit. Rather, perhaps the disciples themselves wished to hear the answer of Christ, or maybe John sent them for instruction.

But the question asked remains perhaps the most important: was Jesus the one to come? The expectation that God would send a savior, his chosen messiah, to save his people from their sins rests at the very heart of the Christian religion. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council teach in Dei Verbum, “[Through] Moses and the prophets, [God] taught this people to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God, provident father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by Him, and in this manner prepared the way for the Gospel down through the centuries.” What sense could anyone make of Isaiah’s promise that the parched desert would bloom, that the glory of the Lord could be seen, if God were not to reveal Himself? If he were not planning to intervene? If he were not going to send someone?

Isaiah’s image of the blooming desert should call to mind another verse, namely, when the prophet promises, “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isa. 11:1). Christ, of course, is the shoot, the rose, blooming, sent from heaven above. Of him we sing in the fabled carol, “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, / From tender stem hath sprung. / Of Jesse’s lineage coming, / As men of old have sung…” The voices of the prophets, the great ringing out from Isaiah, point to Christ; is the one who was to come.

The rose, further, even points to just how he would save us. The red color of the rose remind us of the blood of his passion. The tender stalk calls to ming the reeds used to beat him. The thorns would be woven together and crown his head. The promise of a flowering desert means that the peace and vibrant life of Eden will return. By his holy passion, Jesus will restore the integrity of the Garden of Eden, before men subjected the world to the consequences of our sin.  


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Listen to Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Sir Colin Davies

Jesus invites those asking, “Are you the one who is to come?”, to examine his works and therein find the answer. The miracles of Christ in particular manifest the central claim of Jesus’ life: that he is divine and that he has come to save his people. All the sufferings of the world which are brought to Jesus, are touched by his healing power. Even greater than his command of nature, is his giving of spiritual gifts. He drives away demons and he forgives sins. The miracles of Christ confirm his divine power and demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ teaching, yet the physical healings are signs of these greater deeds.

In Christ’s own time there were those who heard of his mighty deeds or even saw them with their own eyes, yet could not profess that Christ was truly the messiah. So too in our own day. We hear tell of miracles and wonder, could Christ really have done such a thing? Or maybe our reluctance to proclaim Jesus as the messiah is more subtle. Perhaps we wonder: could the Gospel really demand that? Can Jesus make the desert of my life flourish if I live this or that aspect of the Gospel’s moral teaching? Can Jesus water the drought of my suffering spiritual life? All these and more are ways we ourselves ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?”

This year marks 260 years since Handel, the great Baroque composer, has passed from this life to his eternal reward. Some have observed that, unlike Bach, Handel’s music curiously seems to evoke less God’s grandeur in his divinity and focuses more intently on people’s reactions to Jesus. This Advent, we can focus on our reaction to Christ and his invitation. Let us confidently place the whole of our lives before him, begging to be renewed by the graces of this Advent. Let us say to Christ, “I believe you the one who is to come!”



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