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The Beginning of Hope. The Messiah: The Gospel according to Handel’s Oratorio.

By Sr. Anne, SSJD.

Isaiah 40:1-11 Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 2 Peter 3:8-15a Mark 1:1-8

All our readings for today have one common theme using texts from the prophets.

In our Epistle reading for today, the idea of Christ’s second coming has its roots in the Old Testament understanding of the Day of the Lord taken mostly from the prophetic books. It was variously described as a day of destruction, darkness, a day of clouds, of distress, of anguish, ruin, devastation, a sound of bitterness and interestingly enough to me a time to be silent.

The purpose of the Day of the Lord was not to be destruction but purification – a refiner’s fire through which God would restore the world to a more purified state that creation was meant to be.

Peter counselled the early Christians while they were waiting for Christ’s second coming, to ask themselves “What kind of people ought you to be in holy living and godliness?” and to “make every effort to be found in peace.” The effort involved would be to develop a kind of inner peace and well being, that is derived from a deep relationship with God.

At the beginning of Gospel of Mark, we are introduced to the person of John the Baptist that the prophet Malachi spoke of. The prophet prophesied that “Before the Day of the Lord, I send you the prophet Elijah.” Malachi also prophesied “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…” Mark includes this prophecy to establish the roots from which the Christian faith began. Also, from the book of Isaiah, Mark uses these words to describe John’s ministry

“A voice cries out ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Which brings me to the Old Testament reading for today from the prophet Isaiah.

At this time of year, prior to this pandemic, there was a tradition in my family, in many choirs and symphony choruses to offer a production of George F. Handel’s, Messiah. Like all the Gospels in the New Testament, the Messiah begins with the promise of the Messiah through the words of the prophets, both major and minor from the Old Testament. The text was compiled by a man named Charles Jennens. The main source of the collection was the 1611 Authorized King James Version of the Bible together with some texts from the Book of Common Prayer. The opening words of the Tenor Recitative of Handel’s Messiah begins with these words

“Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye, my people”.

This is a voice of Comfort of a God who is reaching out to all people. As I pondered and prayed with these opening words of the Messiah, I had the sense of being invited to come into God’s loving embrace. The second part continues with these words:

“Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”

To speak tenderly or comfortably means literally to “speak to the heart”. The heart is the core of a person, their innermost being. Through the human voice of the Prophet, God is reaching out to speak tenderly and to say that the struggle with death, destruction and depression are over and that all the things that got in the way of a very close relationship are reconciled.

The final part of this opening recitative are the words: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare, ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

All the Gospels use this verse to announce the coming of our God through preaching and baptism of John the Baptist. Preparation involves the spiritual disciplines of prayer, reading of scripture, worship and commitment to growth (ie purification). The call now is for action. In the desert we are to prepare a high – way for our God, we are to be “under construction.” The hope is that deep inner work within each one of us as Christians will yield fruitfulness for the world to see and taste.

Following the recitative there is the Aria:

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

The task is before us now and it is time to take, action. We are about to embark on building or constructing a highway – a royal highway for our God. We are the construction company that is tasked with building a highway that is to be straight in the desert so that God may travel along and through it freely. The valleys need to be raised up and strengthened, the mountains and hills lowered, the bends and crooked places in the desert need to be straightened and the rough areas surrounding the highway need to be cultivated. Four different tasks for a community to work on in order to welcome the Messiah.

In order to exalt valleys, this construction company needs people skilled in bridge building.

Mountains and hills need to be lowered. This construction company needs people who are skilled in creating a way through the mountains to maintain a straight road. Some mountains are too high to be crossed and the only way around them is to go through them by way of a tunnel. Hills that are to made low need people who have the ability and skill to work with road graders that help to keep things at an even keel or in balance.

The “crooked made straight” are people in the company who have skills in visioning and planning. A

 construction company cannot function without the plans of the architect and the designs of an engineer. They are the thinkers behind the scenes who see the project as a whole. With imaginative skill they are the ones who can see both the possibilities and challenges that such a monumental task may bring. They make sure that the problems that crop up unexpectedly can be straightened out or ironed out by giving counsel to the rest of the team by keeping the road straight and not “bent out of shape” for God’s passage through the desert.

The last thing that a construction company needs is to cultivate the areas surrounding a highway so that it becomes a thing of beauty and the journey a pleasant one. Trees have to planted and gardens cultivated. This is a challenge as a desert is a barren and dry place – a rough place that needs to become plain. A rough place is described as being rugged, in a state of nature, not polished, and even fallow so there is a lot of potential for creating a thing of beauty in fallow land. We will want to create beauty where there has been barrenness and dryness.

Next in the Messiah is the Chorus 

“And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

A wide-open highway and open skies where everything that God is – will be visible. The understanding of how God was visible to the people of Israel was remembering the time of the forty years wandering in the wilderness or desert when God was present through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. In New Testament times from the Acts of the Apostles’ to the present the presence of God has become known through the actions of the Holy Spirit.   The vision of God’s glory will be granted to all people and God provides a guarantee that this will happen. For God’s mouth has spoken it- is the power to accomplish things, is trustworthy and it is God’s promise.  Amen