Text: Matthew 17:1-9 (The Transfiguration)
I was pleased when Bryan told me that he had chosen “And the Glory of the Lord” as the anthem for Transfiguration Sunday. It is the opening chorus of a well-loved piece of baroque music: “The Messiah” by George Frederick Handel. While it is from the Advent and Christmas section of “The Messiah,” it works equally well for Transfiguration Sunday since it is about the revelation of divine glory.
The words of this chorus are from the Old Testament book Isaiah, as are the words of the two solos that precede it. Here is the text for these two opening solos and chorus as taken from the King James translation of the Bible of 1611.
“Comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
“A voice of him that cries in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:1-4)
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Gospel writer Mark connected these mysterious words of Isaiah, which were already 700 years old by then, to Jesus. Mark used them when writing about John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus. In 1742, Handel cemented this connection between Isaiah and Jesus by using Isaiah’s words to portray the advent of Jesus in his choral masterpiece “The Messiah.”
When I was 15, I heard “The Messiah” performed live for the first time, and no concert has ever affected me as much. CBC’s classical music morning program Tempo used to have a feature called “Music That Rocked Your World.” It let listeners tell about a piece of music that made a big impact on their lives.
I often thought of submitting a story to Tempo about “And the Glory of the Lord” but never got around to writing it — until now. So here is that story of when I first heard “The Messiah” as a 15-year old and how it rocked my world.
My family had moved that year from Cornwall to Belleville, and we were all unhappy. My father didn’t like his new church. My siblings and I didn’t like our new schools. We all considered Belleville to be too dull. But one bright spot for my father was the community choir, which he had joined and which was performing “The Messiah” that first winter we lived in Belleville.
My older brother Paul and I went to the concert with a lot of skepticism. We knew “The Messiah” from an old mono recording that my parents often played. We also heard it performed every Christmas Day on CBC radio. Although we liked some baroque music, we expected to be bored by this long piece since it is filled with long, repetitive vocal solos and starchy old choruses.
As we filed into the balcony of the packed downtown United Church where the concert was held, I was intrigued to see one of my teachers in the chorus. I had a big crush on her, so I thought her presence might brighten my evening.
Then the amateur orchestra played the Overture. My heart sank at the screeching of the string instruments. The Overture was followed by the first two solos, which to me seemed to go on for ever.
Finally, the big amateur choir — around 100 people — got to their feet for the opening chorus — “And the Glory of the Lord.” And as soon as they started to sing, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It had been one thing to hear a mono recording of this music. It was another thing to hear an enthusiastic group of amateurs sing it live. Paul and I loved it. For the rest of the evening, we hungrily scanned the program to see when the next chorus would appear. It would be years before I would come to appreciate the solos. But I loved all the choruses.
That evening began my love for large-scale choral works. To my pleasure, I have had a chance to sing choruses from “The Messiah” myself many times since then. Beginning in the mid-1980s, I often participated in the annual sing-a-long version of “The Messiah” put on by the Tafelmusik choir and orchestra at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Kingston Road United Choir, which I joined in 2001, performed the Christmas section of “The Messiah” several times. Most thrilling for me was a chance to perform the entire “Messiah” — all three hours of it — as a member of an amateur choir alongside a semi-professional orchestra in Oshawa just east of Toronto in 2006. This is the closest I have ever felt to being a real musician, standing on stage before 700 people in a big Pentecostal church with a wonderful choir, conductor, and orchestra who were all filled with unbridled enthusiasm for this glorious music.
This last November, the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus, of which Kim and I are members, performed an all-Handel concert, which included four choruses from “The Messiah,” including “And the Glory of the Lord.” Finally, I will get to sing this chorus with the choir following this sermon!
When I love a piece of music, I rarely tire of it. Despite having performed “And the Glory” more than 50 times, I still look forward to it.
But while I don’t tire of old chestnuts like “The Messiah,” many others yearn for music that is more modern. The Worship Survey here last spring made this plain. Finding the right mix of music for congregations with a variety of tastes and backgrounds is an ongoing challenge.
This past week, Jennifer McPhee and I held several meetings at St. Andrew’s United Church. We are conducting a Pastoral Oversight Visit there on behalf of Edmonton Presbytery. One of the things that intrigued us about St. Andrew’s was their music program. In the last few years, they have downsized from a choir, to a six-person chorale, to a few volunteer cantors. The cantors are individuals who sing with a mike from the front of the sanctuary each Sunday. In the absence of a choir, they help the congregation sing through the service.
At first glance, the downsizing from choir, to chorale to cantors looked negative to Jennifer and me. But many people at St. Andrew’s say they love it. The number of songs sung each Sunday has increased and the range of styles has grown. St. Andrew’s uses not only Voices United and More Voices, but also song books from New Zealand, Australia and the Iona community in Scotland.
About 10 years ago, St. Andrew’s experimented with a Saturday evening service called “One World.” It focused on music from places like Brazil, southern Africa, and Asia. While that service is no longer offered, their Sunday morning service now has a world-music feel to it. I wish St. Andrew’s offered video podcasts of their Sunday gatherings so I could get a better sense of how this works. Perhaps I will suggest a pulpit exchange there one day so I can get a first-hand look.
The first time I heard “The Messiah” live was an epiphany. It brought me closer to my father, to the music, and to the glory of God to which “The Messiah” is dedicated. But glory can also obscure as well as reveal. The Old Testament words used in “The Messiah” don’t mean much to me. I love the music, but I don’t always find it to be a complete spiritual experience.
I have a similar problem with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter, James and John have a dazzling vision of Jesus clothed in white and visited by the ancient Hebrew heroes of Moses and Elijah.
But I don’t find its meaning clear. Is it about Jesus being the fulfilment of the Law of Moses and the Prophecies of Elijah as Matthew suggests in his version of the Sermon on the Mount? Or does the fact that Jesus descends from the mountain after the Transfiguration to walk to Jerusalem mean that his ministry is a break from the Law and the Prophets? I suspect the latter, but the story of dazzling light on the mountainside doesn’t help me to decide.
On Thursday evening, Kim and I watched the 2016 Academy Award-nominated movie “Manchester by the Sea.” It is a tale of the harm caused by unexpressed grief and how a family slowly comes to grips with loss. And guess what? It uses music from Handel’s Messiah.
In a scene where the lead character drives to his hometown to get some devastating news, the Pastoral Symphony from “The Messiah” plays. In a later scene at a funeral, two solos from The Messiah are used to convey heartbreak. The first one, sung by an alto, uses a passage from Isaiah that is often linked by the church to Jesus: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
As the funeral scene reaches a climax of reconciliation, the soprano sings the same tune in a higher key with words of Jesus from Matthew: “Come unto him, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and he shall give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn from him for he is meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
The movie uses other music as well: Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, heavy metal. But I was struck that “The Messiah” plays a key role in this new work of art. The words might be 2000 or more years old and the music might be close to 300 years old, but its impact can still feel as close as a loved one’s embrace.
As we craft worship experiences that try to reveal the glory of God’s Love here at Mill Woods, may we continue to find inspiration in ancient scripture, contemporary art, and music both ancient and modern.