musical notes on a parchment

Comfort Ye – Handel’s Messiah

 December 1, 2022

One of my holiday traditions is to listen to Handel’s Messiah at the beginning of Advent. I’ve been doing this since high school when my brother gave me a vinyl recording of it. It combines two of my favorite things: exquisite music and the words of the prophet Isaiah. This year as I listened, I found myself focusing on the words of the opening oratory – “Comfort Ye!”  What a powerful message!

The Genus of Handel’s Messiah

The Messiah is a musical masterpiece composed in 1741. Written in three parts, it tells the story of God’s saving power. The first part focuses on the coming of the Messiah using passages from Isaiah, other prophets and the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew. Two covers Jesus’ passion and resurrection, again using Isaiah as well as passages from the Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Revelation. Part three begins with the promise of redemption then moves through judgment day to victory over sin and death, using passages from 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Revelation.

I admit, I often only listen to part one during Advent. I’m all about the coming of Jesus and not ready for his passion and death. Besides, who has time to sit through three hours of music in the midst of the holiday season. Though sometimes I will play the music as a backdrop for my activities.

Handel composed the music in 24 days. Some say it was a burst of artistic inspiration, coming directly from God. It truly is a musical masterpiece that has passed the test of time. I have cherished memories of singing the three choruses (The Glory of the Lord, For Unto Us a Child is Born, and the Hallelujah chorus) in high school choir. And the opening movement where, after a pause, a violin breaks forth into exultant song continues to thrill me every time I hear it.

Comfort Ye, Isaiah 40

Then there are the words, so many taken from Isaiah. Isaiah is my favorite book of the Bible. I love the poetry and his message of hope for a better world, a peace-filled one. The passage, ‘Comfort Ye,” is the first line of the book of consolation, Chapter 40, attributed to Second Isaiah. There is a shift in the poetry and the message from one of judgment to one of consolation and comfort to a people in exile, a people who had lost everything.

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. 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.” (Isaiah 40, vv.1–3)

“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight and the rough places plain:” (Isaiah 40, v.4)

“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, v.5)

These passages comprise the text of the first scene. They announce words of comfort to the Israelites, letting them know that their days of trial are over, and their sins forgiven. They then foretell the coming of the Messiah.  The promise of a time when valleys shall be raised and mountains leveled follows. A time when the crooked will be straight, a time of justice where God’s glory prevails.

Who Is the One Who Comforts?

Who is the comforter but God. More precisely, God’s spirit, that indwelling of God in each of us which surges when we are moved by an awe-inspiring sunrise, the voice of a loved one, or a beautiful piece of music. That spark of divinity that speaks to us without words.

Charles Jennens chose the Scripture passages. As one blogger wrote, “In a time of rising secularism and humanism in England, Jennens was a member of the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel” and a passionate evangelical believer. He believed that putting the gospel to music would communicate its truth, not just intellectually, but at a deep heart level.” Not so different from our own time.

Who doesn’t need comfort at times? We love to curl up under our favorite blanket or “comforter” on a cold night and feel safe and warm. Such is God’s spirit. It warms us and supports us during times of trouble and distress. I can’t imagine a world without comfort, especially the comfort provided by our God.

In an increasingly secular world, where do people find their comfort? We need a resurgence of belief in a God who loves and comforts us. Who sustains us through the trials of this world and provides hope for the future. We need the words and music of The Messiah pouring out into the darkness, proclaiming: “Comfort Ye!”

What about you? Where do you find comfort?

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