Earlier this month, my wife and I went to hear a performance of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, at Camelback Bible Church in Phoenix; the orchestra and chorus of the Phoenix Symphony was directed by Music Director Tito Muñoz. Like so many people, we have loved this music for a very long time. We listen to recordings, we have sung it in choirs, I have played it in an orchestra (in the orchestration by Mozart that includes trombones), and we have studied its music and text.
The most famous part of Messiah is the “Hallelujah Chorus;” Handel’s manuscript is shown above. Coming at the end of Part II of the oratorio, it is a joyous celebration of Jesus Christ, “Hallelujah – and He shall reign forever and ever.”
Of course, when one hears Messiah at this time of year, a particular point of focus is Part I that tells the story of the birth of Jesus.
The sequence of soprano recitatives and choruses surrounding the announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds (shown above, in part) is electrifying:
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the Glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.
This year, these words from Luke’s Gospel , 2:8-14, had new, special meaning to us. This summer, we traveled to Israel with a tour group sponsored by the Wheaton College Alumni Association. The trip changed us in many ways, and provided us with a new context for the understanding of the Bible, its time, its people and its message.
We traveled to Bethlehem, the city of the birth of Jesus, to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place where Christ was born. A word on this: There are many places in Israel where it is believed that this or that event happened. Some are known with certainty, others are known only by long tradition. For me, it does not matter if I stood on the exact spot of an historical event; it is enough for me to have been in the neighborhood and been in a place where millions of people for centuries have believed an event occurred. Such it is with the Church of the Nativity. In the photo above, the floor of the church’s grotto has been covered with marble that was placed there to keep people from chipping away a part of the rock on which it is built. Below the altar is a silver star, in the middle of which is a hole where one can reach down and touch the original bedrock.
From the Church we went to the Bethlehem shepherd fields where our group sang Christmas carols in a cave known to have been used by shepherds over the centuries. The idea of sheep and shepherds in and around Bethlehem took on new meaning as we came to appreciate Bethlehem’s proximity to Jerusalem and the need, in Biblical times, for many sheep for sacrificial purposes.
Near the shepherd caves is the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Fields, a small but beautiful chapel that features paintings of scenes from that night when the angel came to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ (above).
There was one more small thing that we encountered in that trip to Bethlehem. In our many travels around the world, we have seen small plaques with verses from the Bible in various places. Sometimes they are found in a single language, sometimes in two or three languages. I don’t know who makes them and who installs them, but we have seen them in the USA, England, Greece and, now, in Israel. We saw the plaque below, in English and German, in a courtyard of the Church of the Nativity. This verse from John 1:14 is, to me, the most impactful, stunning, remarkable sentence I have ever read. That God would send his Son, Jesus, to redeem His people on earth is incomprehensible. But this is what we celebrate at Christmas.