Monday, December 12, 2011

The gospel according to Handel

My pastor has been preaching a series of Advent sermons on texts used by G.F. Handel and Charles Jennens in the magnificent oratorio Messiah. You probably know that the words are all straight from the Bible, and arranged in such a masterful way to help us see afresh the grand scope of God's unfolding plan of salvation culminating in Christ. One critic has rightly called it "the revelation of Jesus Christ set to music." And what glorious music it is!

Another great work of art associated with this time of year is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Like Handel, Dickens was a believer in Jesus and one can see a Christian ethic throughout his much-loved tale of Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the rest. Blogger Tony Reinke has written an interesting comparison of Messiah and A Christmas Carol. While appreciating the Christmas message of A Christmas Carol, Reinke concludes that Handel's version of Christmas gospel hope is superior. I agree.

Here's an excerpt.

I don’t know much about the life of Dickens, but clearly he was no mere deist. He pressed his children to see the importance of Christ’s incarnation, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and even the persecution of the early church. He seems to have a high regard for Scripture, and for this I am thankful. But it also seems that he boils down the meaning of Christmas to say little more than that Christ is our moral pattern to help us live Christianly.

By contrast, for Handel, the birth of the Savior marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. As that eternal plan begins to unfold on earth, Christ must be born, he must die a bloody death, and he must defeat the grave because we are desperate and helpless sinners. The entire salvific purposes of God begin to unfold in the Incarnation, in the birth of Christ.

For Dickens, Christmas is a reminder that we are all Scrooges, self-centered ungrateful nobs who yet have some hope of appeasing God through our personal reform.

For Handel, Christmas reminds us that we are all sinners, we are “in Adam,” and for that we are helpless to stop God’s righteous judgment towards our sin. Yet there is One who has paid the price to quench God’s wrath on our behalf.

In both A Christmas Carol and Messiah, all our warm and tranquil Hallmark Christmas sentimentality gets blasted by cold reality. Death is coming for us all, and the grave is approaching quickly.

Dickens wants people to die in peace.

Handel wants people raised from the dead.

Dickens’ hope is rooted in the future — in the finished work of moral reform necessary in our lives.

Handel’s hope is rooted in the past — the full and complete work of Christ on our behalf.

Dickens’ message is “do.”

Handel’s message is “done.”

Click through to read the whole thing.

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