Handel’s Messiah and Navajo Shepherds

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I have to admit something to you that may affect our relationship forever. I have not been a big fan of Handel’s Messiah. I don’t get the hype and the obsession of that tradition.

Yes, I grew up being dragged to the Calvin Alumni Choir’s annual Messiah sing (my uncle was the accompanist). I even had to endure a few Christmases in the downtown performance center. It didn’t connect. Sorry, Peter Bulthuis (and others).

My real Christmas traditions centered more around the quiet moments, without the pomp. I reveled in the yearly routine of walking in the woods to find a tree, hanging up homemade ornaments on the advent calendar, lighting candles and pondering the heaviness of the world and the immensity of the gift of a Savior. I felt true joy and awe when a congregation would gather on Christmas Eve, silently light candles, and file out into the holy night.

The trills and oratorio of the superfluous notes of Handel always felt stuffy and an ostentatious baroque (insert “European”) showcase. It did not match the humble setting of a well-used barn into which this child was born to a Middle Eastern mother. I was most aware of this misalignment in my first years spent teaching in the Southwest. The choir directors decided that it would be amazing to sing the Hallelujah chorus at the end of the annual Christmas concert. I winced. We were already sitting in the only Cathedral within 150 miles, why impose more white Christian traditions on indigenous people? The first years (yes, the tradition stuck) were a bit bumpy. Lots of time shuffling around music to those who came up from the audience, lots of white people coming forward with unbridled enthusiasm and mediocre singing voices. It shouldn’t connect.

And yet. And yet, over the years, it started to evolve. As more and more alumni returned for the annual concert, they became the ones who walked to the front to sing. They knew which section to stand in, they knew the music, and even brought it with them in preparation. The choir was a host of diversity and the sound reverberated from the cathedral walls as designed and intended.

My people, the Navajo, are shepherds. Sheep are at the center of our intrinsic weavings and the featured items on the menu of any feast. The shepherds on that holy night in Bethlehem were not in a cathedral, but the fields filled with the angelic hosts singing, certainly resounded with joy! I don’t know the genre of music that the angels sang that night; I imagine it might have been a bit more familiar sounding to the Jewish shepherds, regardless; the message of good news and great joy was received.  

What would the lyrics have been? Certainly they must have been the prophecies fulfilled. I hear the words of Isaiah, Amos, and Micah sung by heavenly hosts. Those words, penned by Handel’s friend Charles Jennens, have been coming to my aching heart often this advent season. I have lain to rest far too many Navajo sheepherders due to COVID-19. Their fields and hills are in crisis even as I write this today. My deep sorrow and the world’s groaning for a Savior long for a melody to connect to the divine hope. The songs have been there my whole life, now I finally receive them wholeheartedly. Hallelujah!

Below I have listed some excerpts from The Messiah and my prayers in response:

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. 
Lord, how I need you to lift the low places up, please make my rough places smooth again.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 
O God of comfort, be present in my grief.

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. 
Yes, we need you LORD, we are lost and wandering, bring us not only to a path but to a superhighway that leads to you.

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given,
and the government shall be upon His shoulder:
and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. 
God above all gods, may I know you as wonderful, mighty, everlasting, and may you bring a peace that is full of justice and mercy.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 
You are the good shepherd who seeks the lost one when the other 99 are safely in the sheep pen. You are so loving.

Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdoms of this world is become the kingdoms of our Lord,
and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. 
Hallelujah, my God reigns. Forever and ever. You did not come to be of this world, but to save us from ourselves. Yours is not a nationalistic kingdom, it is the kingdoms of the LORD. Hallelujah, my God reigns. Forever and ever! Amen!

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Thank you, Carol, for sharing a new way to consider and pray through Handel's Messiah.   Beautiful!

 I must say, Carol, that at first I winced when I read that you are not a fan of Handel's Messiah (my favorite composer and in my opinion his greatest work!).  At the same time, and as a farmer myself, I also find the best moments of the Christmas season in the quiet times and the simple things. In fact I have even proposed that we hold our Christmas day services in barns or stables since that is where it all began and the barn seems the farthest place from the busy, over commercialized shopping malls.

  I once attended a performance of Handel's Messiah by a small ensemble and a handful of performers - apparently the way Handel intended it. No pomp, just beautiful music, praise and worship. On Christmas eve and through out Christmas day I put on the Messiah in the barn for us and our cattle to enjoy.

  Thanks for sharing.  It is important to hear different perspectives and to hear the struggles of others.

   Blessings to you and the Navajo shepherds, Bill

We just had a 4 part Advent series of messages that were based on the scripture passages and musical numbers in the Messiah. After each message the people could listen to the music. Every year I appreciate Handel's musical masterpiece that's totally based on the Word of God. I would challenge you pastors to base your next Advent series on the Messiah.