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Jesus Christ, more than any other story in the gospels, has been the focus of endless fascination and contemplation down the centuries. ‘Aesthetically…it has captured the attention and imagination of dramatists (passion plays), artists, and musicians. Literarily, passion vignettes have left their mark on language and imagery: thirty pieces of silver, Judas kiss, cockcrow, washing one’s hands off blood. Historically, Jesus’ death was the most public moment of his life as figures known from Jewish or secular history (Caiaphas, Annas, Pilate) crossed his path. Indeed, alongside “born of the virgin Mary,” the other phrase that made its way into the creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” has become a marker anchoring Christian belief about the Son of God to a Jesus who was a human figure of actual history. Theologically, Christians have interpreted the death of Jesus on the cross as the key element in God’s plan for the justification, redemption, and salvation of all. Spiritually, the Jesus of the passion has been the focus of Christian meditation for countless would-be disciples who take seriously the demand of the Master to take up the cross and follow him. Pastorally, the passion is the centrepiece of Lent and Holy Week, the most sacred time in the liturgical calendar. The custom of Lenten preaching has made it a most favoured subject for homilies. In sum, from every point of view the passion is the central narrative in the Christian story’. So claims the great NT scholar Raymond Brown in his magisterial commentary on the Passion Narratives. Last year, while preaching at the Good Friday service on Jesus’ Seven Last Words at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Merton, I suggested that the congregation listens to the Seven Last Words as one would listen to a Bach fugue. For each of these last words, indeed much of the Passion Narratives, is composed within the harmony and counterpoint of the Hebrew Bible (OT). The PNs would sound dull and monophonic; almost like a one-finger pianist picking his way through the melody line of a Bach toccata or fugue. I suggested that the congregation listen to the bass-line, the counterpoint and the harmony emerging from the OT voices. It is now clear to me that Handel and his librettist were only too familiar with the counterpoint of scripture so skilfully played out between the voices of the Old and New Testaments and maximized this in what is probably the best-known oratorio ever to be composed. It is not without significance that scholars suggest that it is particularly in the Part II second section of the Messiah, i.e., in the section on the passion of Christ, that this technique is most fully developed. Musically, two genres influencing his treatment of the Passion section in the Messiah were Italian oratorio and German passion music. In 1704 Handel moved to Hamburg, ‘an important centre in the development of extended musical performances of the Passion narrative during Holy Week. In these Passions the German church came closest to Italian oratorio, though they were never staged theatrically and were usually performed within a clear devotional or liturgical framework’ (Burrows 2-3). In 1716, while in London, Handel composed his Brockes Passion (Der für die Sünde der Welt gemartete und sterbende Jesus) for performance in Germany. This shows that he had a close
acquaintance with the genre of Passion music. Thus far, Handel had not been successful as a musician and had retired from much professional activity by the age of fifty-six. Then, in a remarkable series of events, Charles Jennens, a friend, presented him with a libretto based on the life of Christ, the entire script of which was Scripture. Handel shut himself in his room on Brook Street in London. In twenty-four days, entirely engrossed in his composition and hardly eating or drinking, Handel completed the work all the way to its orchestration. He was a man in the grip of profound inspiration. Handel’s servant testified that on one occasion when he walked into the room to plead with him to eat, he saw Handel with tears streaming down his face saying, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” We do have a letter from Jennens in the period before the Messiah was composed. He writes: ‘Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah’. ‘Scripture Collection’ and ‘Passion Week’ are the two phrases that clearly stand out in the letter. By carefully selecting scripture appropriate to the Passion, the librettist has constructed what is in effect a skilfully crafted, well-rounded statement of Christian doctrine. Even more significant is that as in the passions of Schütz or Bach, we do not have a detailed account of the passion story, depicting the drama from Gethsemane to Golgotha. In the words of Jens Peter Larsen, ‘This chain of episodes, which gives the account of the suffering its stamp of living reality and has been firmly linked to the traditional interpretation of the Passion for centuries, is repressed here because it is of no direct importance for the representation of the work’s central idea: the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering’ (137). Remarkably, nearly all the passion texts are based on the OT. There is only one NT text in the entire passion section. It is this text that is pivotal: it opens Part II and uses the same theme to climax and complete the greatest oratorio ever written. Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world! (John 1:29, slightly modified) It is appropriate that Part II of Messiah begin with John the Baptist, just as did Part I, with the voice crying in the wilderness. To bring the Baptist into the picture here seems out of order; he belongs at the beginning of the story. But the librettist takes the liberty of bringing him in a second time. In Part I the Baptist announced the coming of the glory of the Lord in the person of the Messiah; the announcement was from the picture of the Baptist in the Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here the Baptist appears in his Johannine presentation, to announce the saving advent of one who takes away the sin of the world. The words look backward to the Jesus who lifts the burden from the weary and heavy laden, and forward to the passion of the Messiah in the coming sections. The motif of the lamb is a rich motif, with several different roots; a theological concept that
spanned the scope of scripture. In Genesis, the lamb in the story of Abraham and Isaac, is a substitute for Isaac—the potential victim. Isaac is an example of a righteous sufferer—facing the possibility of a violent death for no fault of his own. In Exodus, the blood of the Passover lamb applied to the doorposts of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt spoke of God’s liberation and God’s judgement. In Leviticus, the sacrificial lamb of the burnt offering spoke of God’s forgiveness. In Isaiah, the lamb spoke of the coming Messiah as the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. ‘He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter…’ (Isaiah 53:7). The oratorio will pick up this theme in a moment. In the book of Enoch, written between the time of the OT and the NT, there is the image of a lamb sprouting a great horn, and battling with the enemy. This may refer to the great Jewish revolutionary Judas Maccabaeus, but it more likely is a prophecy of the coming Messiah. In the OT, King David himself is represented as a lamb who becomes a ram, a ruler or leader of the sheep. Jesus the Messiah is both victim and victor, Suffering Servant and Conquering King. In the book of Revelation, the Lamb standing before the throne is also the Lion (Rev 5:5-6). It is only fitting that the oratorio should climax with praise to the Lamb (again Largo followed by Andante): ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing’. John’s gospel (and Handel’s Messiah) interprets Jesus in terms of the Passover lamb. In the other three gospels, the last supper, which Jesus eats with his disciples, is a Passover meal. In John’s gospel it is not. John makes a point that Jesus was on the cross at the time the Passover lambs were slain in the temple precincts in preparation for the meal that evening (John 19:14). Jesus dies before the soldiers can break his legs in order to fulfil the scripture, "None of his bones shall be broken," writes John (19:36). This is what is true of the Passover Lamb in Exod 12:46 ‘It shall be eaten in one house…and you shall not break any of its bones’. This is no joyous chorus. It contrasts sharply both musically and textually with the elation of the preceding Allegro Chorus that ends Part I with the words ‘His yoke is easy, and his burden is light’. It is Largo but it should not be too slow. It is precisely because the Messiah is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world that my burden is easy and my yoke is light. There is the force of the line suggesting laboriousness: ‘that taketh away’— now a pause, almost as if for rest, ‘the sin of the world,’ the line rising higher, depicting the heavy weight of sin being lifted from the world by the Messiah’s agony. PAUSE The libretto of Messiah is immensely astute in its selection and arrangement of the OT texts. As with the gospel writers, Handel’s passion echoes the OT in two ways: first, simply by allusion as we have just seen; second, by explicit citation of scripture, as we will soon see. In doing so, Handel’s passion appears to reflect the three-fold division of the OT into Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings. While the first text—the Lamb of God text—is heavily dependent on the Pentateuch (especially its roots in the Abraham
episode), the next set of texts is from the prophet Isaiah and then from the Psalms and Lamentations (the Writings). The images of the suffering Patriarch, suffering Prophet and suffering Psalmist thus come together in the person of the suffering Christ. The selection reflects the profoundly biblical and theological orientation of the oratorio since it has selected the OT texts that did indeed have the greatest influence on the composition of the gospel passion narratives and on the development of the central Christological doctrines of the suffering and atonement of our Lord. These texts are Isaiah 53 and Psalms 22 and 69. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3, modified) At the peak of Jesus’ ministry great crowds followed him. At the Last Supper there were twelve. With Judas’ defection there were eleven. In Gethsemane he takes three of his disciples onto the hillside for prayer, but with them falling asleep he is left all alone— rejected of men. ‘In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground’ (Lk 22:24)—acquainted with grief. At the inquest Jesus is struck, slapped in the face, and spat upon (Matt 26:67)—despised. Even Peter denies him: “I do not know the man” (26:72). This poem is one of four embedded within Isaiah 40-55 (exilic) which are collectively known as the Servant Songs, since an unidentified figure called the Servant of the Lord appears in them. In these poems, the Servant is the innocent victim who suffers unjustly but vicariously on behalf of others. Much ink has been spilt in debating one of the most vexing questions of OT scholarship: Who is the Servant? There are at least four possible answers. First, the servant is Israel. In one of the songs, the Servant is specifically identified as Israel: ‘you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified’ (49:3). Perhaps this is a reflection of the exilic trauma Israel is going through. Perhaps this is how Israel is to be a light to the nations, through redemptive suffering. The problem with this identification is that in at least one place, 49:5-6, the Servant has a mission to Israel. Second, the Servant is an individual. The poem is in parts biographical—is the Servant Moses, or Jeremiah—both vicarious sufferers for their people? Third, the poems are autobiographical, reflecting the agony of the exilic prophet pouring out the grief of his own soul. The Israelites, however, did not see in the Servant Songs a reflection of the coming Messiah, because to them a suffering Messiah was a contradiction in terms; the Messiah’s function was to be victorious rather than vicarious. But for Jesus and the gospel writers the Messiah would be victorious through his vicarious suffering for the sins of the world. The aria is interrupted with a verse from another of the Servant Songs, Isaiah 50:6. He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: he hit not his face from shame and spitting (Isaiah 50:6, modified). There the Servant himself speaks in the first person, describing his determination to bear witness to the word God had given him to reveal to the weary. “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.” This experience is clearly reflected in Matt 26:67: ‘Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him’. Isaiah 53:7, part of the passage now being sung, though not included in the text, also depicts the scene: ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth’. This is perhaps the most moving aria in the entire oratorio. It summons us to meditate on the cost of our salvation, the divine sorrow. It asks us to watch with the Messiah in the garden, to love him passionately, to ask with the hymn-writer: ‘Amazing Love, how can this be, that thou my God should die for me?’ The music is measured and somber, the range of the melody is narrow and concentrated, with frequent long rests between the phrases. The orchestral accompaniment accentuates three words: despised, rejected, Man of Sorrows in a kind of tri-syllabic succession. The middle section takes on the character of an arioso, in very effective contrast with the main part. This contrast, of course, springs from the text. The main part expresses the intense feeling of the pain of desertion and loneliness, while the middle part depicts details of the violence suffered. Handel wrote the aria especially for Mrs. Cibber, who was regarded as the greatest tragedienne of her day. So sublime was her performance that according to tradition it cause Dr Delaney to remark spontaneously: “Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven.” As we pause to listen we know that by his suffering our sins too are forgiven. PAUSE The following three choruses are again all from Isaiah 53 explaining how redemption works (he was punished for our sins/by his stripes we are healed) and why redemption was needed (all we like sheep have gone astray). Chorus 24: Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him. (Isaiah 53:4a-5) Chorus 25: And with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5d) Chorus 26: All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned ev’ry one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6) As the theological and textual tension heightens culminating in the declaration ‘the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ so is key raised from G minor (Behold the Lamb), E flat major (He was despised), F minor (Surely he hath borne + And with his stripes), F major ending in F minor (All we like sheep). This is at the heart of the mystery of redemption. Philip, in Acts 8:32-33, will explain to the Ethiopian eunuch that Isa 53:7-8 refers to Jesus leading to the eunuch’s conversion. The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about
himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:34-36) 1Pet 2:22-25 succinctly summarizes the Servant Song pointing to Jesus as the Servant. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’. The rapid succession of three choruses we are about to hear provides a contrast in mood and tempo. The movements gather pace moving from Largo e staccato (Surely he hath borne our griefs) to Alla breve—Moderato (And with his stripes) to Allegro moderato (All we like sheep). A fundamental feature of the chorus ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ is the dotted rhythm (And the government shall be) as in the earlier ‘He gave his back to the smiters’. For Handel as for Bach dotted rhythms of this kind are a device he often uses to depict passionate, pathetic expression. In the choruses the people of God now speak affirming the work of redemption. ‘Surely’ and ‘the chastisement’ is pregnant and emphatic. ‘He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ suggests the lifting of weight. Then, in ‘And with his stripes,’ the composer lingers over the word ‘healed’ as though soothing balm were applied to the wounds. ‘All we like sheep’ spends most of its length on the wandering of the sheep, the lines suggesting a giddy silliness to our actions. On and on we go astray. This aimless straying is further underlined by the motives’ continual springing from voice to voice without any real collective strength. But with the shift to the adagio at ‘And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ given further musical emphasis through a change of key and tempo, the frantic activity ceases. We now confess in a heavy series of half-notes the gravity of the punishment Christ suffered on our behalf. As Anglicans we hear echoes of the prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer. PAUSE From the suffering servant, Handel moves on to the suffering psalmist. Jennens was a high-churchman who used the text of the KJV and the translation of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. The arrangement of this sub-section is again both musically and textually inspired. There are three recitatives that frame a chorus and an aria. The first three texts are chosen from Psalms 22 and 69—the two most important Psalms used by the gospel writers in constructing the passion narratives, this is followed by a text from the poetry of Lamentations 1:12 and rounded off with a return to the Servant Song of Isaiah 53:8. No 27 Tenor Recitative: All they that see him, laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their
lips, and shake their heads, saying… (Psalm 22:7, modified) No 28 Chorus: He trusted in God, that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, if he delight in him. (Psalm 22:8, modified) No 29 Tenor Recitative: Thy rebuke hath broken his heart; he is full of heaviness, he is full of heaviness: he looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no Man, neither found he any to comfort him. (Psalm 69:20/21, much modified) No 30 Tenor Aria: Behold, and see, if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow. (Lamentations 1:12, modified) No 31 Tenor/Soprano Recitative: He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of thy people was he stricken. (Isaiah 53:8, modified) When Matthew and Mark wrote their accounts of the mocking of Jesus on the cross, they had Psalm 22:7-8 in mind. The psalm is clearly reflected as Matthew and Mark describe the scene: ‘Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son.'" The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way (Matt 27:39-44). The church father Tertullian said that Psalm 22 contained the whole of Christ’s passion. The psalm is what scholars call the lament of an individual. It consists of two parts: an individual lament in 22:2-22 and a thanksgiving in 22:23-32. While the individual who is suffering speaks throughout the first part; in the second part it is the congregation that praises the Lord for rescuing the sufferer from death. Thus Psalm 22 is not one of utter despair. It leads from victimization to vindication; as applied to Jesus—from crucifixion to resurrection. The psalm provides some of the details in the gospel passion narratives. E.g. in Matt 27:35, those who had crucified him cast lots over his clothing. The psalmist groans: ‘They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (Psalm 22:17-18). In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus dies with the opening verse of Psalm 22 on his lips: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Psalm 69 is also an individual lament. It begins with the despair of the psalmist: ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck… My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God’ (Psalm 69:1-3). It concludes, however, with praise to the God who hears the prayers of the oppressed: ‘I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving….Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive. For the LORD hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds (Psalm 69:30-33). Psalm 69:22 has a description of the suffering being given
vinegary wine to drink, a description that is echoed in Matt 27:34 and 48 where the crucified Jesus is given wine mixed with gall and later vinegary wine. It is significant that all the three recitatives here in Part II are accompanied by the orchestra. In Part I, accompanied recitatives are used when the prophet (metaphorically) raises his voice: ‘The voice of him…’. In Part II accompanied recitatives bear the highpoint of the passion tragedy (Thy rebuke, He was cut off) and introduce the mocking crowd at the crucifixion (All they that see him). The first tenor recitative, to a frenzied accompaniment is hostile, shrill and jeering. The chorus sings the taunting. When the second syllable of ‘deliver’ on the beat, goes up an interval of a third with the last syllable coming down a fourth, it has the effect of a punch in the belly. The runs on the word ‘delight’ sound like jeering laughter. Up to this point, the chorus has been the people of God, capping off prophetic words or making confession. But here it is the unruly crowd having their obscene fun at a public execution. Yet in a deeper sense this is the very crowd for whom Jesus dies. This is you and I—we are part of the crowd for it is our sins that nailed him to the cross. The final recitative with its final two notes, ‘stricken’ seem to strike the death blow descending from E to B. It is finished. But the story does not end here. From the dark B minor of the recitative we move into the bring key of A for the area, the announcement that death has not had the final word, for ‘thou didst not leave his soul in hell, not didst Thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption’. Amen. PAUSE
TEXTS Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world! (John 1:29, slightly modified) He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3, modified)
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