Lent Series 2021
Georg Frideric Handel if now recognised as one of the world’s great composers, but his fortunes in his own day ebbed and flowed; not least with London’s musical tastes and the explosive egos of Italian opera singers. It was during a particularly low time that Handel accepted an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire to perform six concertos in Dublin. At the age of 56; and with a complete score for Messiah under his arm, he took up lodgings at 26 Lower Abbey Street and gathered an orchestra and choruses, mostly from the city’s two cathedrals. It would be the premier performance of the oratorio for which he would be famed and Dublin would be forever indebted.
“For relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall on Fishamble Street Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedreals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.”
Dublin Journal, 27 March, 1742
Interest spiked and 700 tickets for the 600-seat New Music Hall in Fishamble Street rapidly sold. According to reports at the time the women were urged not to wear hoops and the gentlemen to “come without swords” to maximise space. On Tuesday 13th April ‘The Messiah’ received its world premier and Handle’s music was a resounding success. It was described as “the most finished piece of music”, “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded”, “The sublime, the grand, and the tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words composed to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.” Few today would disagree. And it was also a financial, raising £4001 for the charities.
This year for our Lenten Series; and to coincide with our focus on the use of Isaiah in the New Testament, we will be drawing on six of the passages that inspired Handel and gave rise to some of the most sublime and best loved music in the classical repertoire. More often than not The Messiah is performed around Christmas time; although to this day, on the 13th of April, it receives a public performance in Dublin outside what remains of the New Music Hall. It was however composed with Easter in mind, and therefore it provides a fitting inspiration for our Lenten Series.
African Messiah is a new celebratory work by the composer Tunde Jegede, based on the themes and melodies of Handel’s Messiah but seen through an African musical worldview. It is a chamber opera that follows the story of the Messiah in parallel to the story of African people bringing together their music with baroque and opera for the first time.
African Messiah brings a new accent to an established and familiar work with musical sound-worlds that are less familiar to a Western audience but nonetheless completely fitting, harmonious and complimentary to the sensibility and ethos of the work. It uniquely weaves in African musical traditions, such as that of the Kora and the Riti (African Violin) and makes the work a more multi-faith experience in keeping with our times without losing the essence of the original ideology African Messiah speaks to both the African experience and a universal journey of people to a sacred place of truth and understanding.
So please, immerse yourself in the music (when it comes), readings and reflections as we prepare for Holy Week and the resounding victory of the crucified and resurrected Christ. Hallelujah!
- Isa.53:8 He was cut off…stricken for the transgression of my peopleOpening prayer
I have heard the story so many times, Lord, that I too often forget the severing that took
place for my salvation. Too lightly I assume it was no big thing for Jesus to be cut off from
the land of the living. Too lightly I assume that it was no big thing for the fellowship between
Father and Son to be cut off. Forgive me, Lord, and show me what it meant and means.
Reading from Isaiah
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgement he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with the rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
– Cut Off –
‘he was cut off’ – the verb used here is gazar, and it has very violent connotations. It is used,
for example, of cutting a child in two. You may recall the drama when Solomon’s wisdom
was put to the test and he gave the command: “Bring me a sword and divide/cut the living
child in two, and give half to the one [woman] and half to the other [woman].” (1 Kings 3:24). The same word describes what ‘the sons of the prophets’ did to provide themselves a
bit more living space; they felled/cut the trees (2 Kings 6:4). When King Uzziah overstepped
his position by presuming to burn incense at the altar, God struck him down with leprosy; a
condition he suffered for the remainder of his life. One of the consequences of his leprosy
was to dwell ‘in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.’ (2
Chronicles 26:21). Once again the word used is gazar. The destiny of those who die under
the Lord’s displeasure is that they are ‘cut off’ –
Like one forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember
for they are cut off from Your hand.
There is no doubting the violence surrounding these occurrences. But even violent cutting
can have its upside; a salvation dimension. In the litany of God’s wonders catalogued in
Psalm 136, Israel’s formative event is described in just these terms:
O give thanks to the LORD…
to him who divided/cut the Red Sea
for his steadfast love endures
Dramatic as that was it remained a signpost pointing towards a greater cutting that would
save not only the Hebrews, but all the nations. The Servant prophesied by Isaiah is no other
than Jesus. A violent death did cut him off from life in this world, but it was precisely in this
act that he delivers us from slavery and transports us to the Promised Land.
Consider some violent act that causes only death: the use of the guillotine during the French
Revolution; the ritual beheading of an animal…
Now consider similarly violent acts where the ‘cutting-off’ nevertheless marks life: the
cutting of a baby’s umbilical cord; the amputation of an infected limb; the severing of a
mountaineer’s rope to save the rest of the team…
In what ways do these two categories differ; and what does this tell you about Jesus’ death?
Reading from the Acts of the Apostles
But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road
that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road. And he rose and
went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of Candace, queen of the
Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and
was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the
Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard
him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are
reading?”And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” and he invited
Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he
was reading was this:
“As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearer is dumb,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
for his life is taken up from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this,
about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and
beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch had in front of them what we would call ‘The Old Testament.’ Many of us if we’re honest, struggle with the volume and contents of that document. We’re much more at home in the Gospels or in the New Testament Letters. We wouldn’t choose to go to the Old Testament as our starting-point, so we’re amazed to discover that the Old Testament can be the most compelling testimony for some people.
Here’s an extract from Chris Wright’s encounter with an Indian Christian in September 1991.
He belonged to one of the despised castes and was determined to better himself so that he could take revenge on those who had so mistreated him. Christ Wright continues:
It happened that the first thing he read in the Bible was the story of Naboth, Ahab and
Jezebel in 1 Kings 21. He was astonished to find that it was all about greed for land, abuse of
power, corruption of the courts, and violence against the poor – things that he himself was
all too familiar with. But even more amazing was the fact that God took Naboth’s side and
not only accused Ahab and Jezebel of wrongdoing but also took vengeance upon them. Here
was a God of real justice. A God who identified the real villains and who took real action
against them. ‘I never knew such a God existed!’ he exclaimed…This God constantly took the
side of the oppressed and took direct action against their enemies. Here was a God he could
respect, a God he felt attracted to, even though he didn’t know him yet, because such a God
would understand his own thirst for justice.
(‘I never knew such a God existed’, in Themelios Jan/Feb. 1992, Vol.17, No.2: 3)
This was the starting-point for his journey into Christian faith. Along the way he was shocked
and dismayed at the introduction of God’s readiness to forgive, but over time he was led
through the Scriptures and into a saving faith.
Imagine you meet a complete stranger on the street or in a cafe. They indicate an interest in
the Christian faith and want to know what it’s about. How would you begin to explain? What
passage of Scripture might you start with? What elements do you consider essential?
Now take the text that the Ethiopian was reading. If you were given this text, how would you
begin to explain Jesus from it?
We rarely have control over where a person begins their journey towards saving faith. Often
we are one step along the way; possibly right at the beginning, sometimes right at the end.
Nevertheless, the better prepared we are, the more likely it is that we shall have such
encounters and opportunities. What have you learned about your preparedness to take
someone through the Scriptures that speak of Jesus?
- Closing Prayer
O God, your justice is hope for those who suffer terrible injustices. Your righteousness raises
the spirits of those whose lives are all wrong. Your mercy comforts the desperate. Your grace
amazes and offends in equal measure. Your holiness cuts us off from fellowship with you;
and by his being cut off from the land of the living, Jesus restores us to your fellowship.
Praise to you O Wise and mighty God, for all that you have done for us and our salvation.