999 Words

At the Last Trumpet: Handel’s Messiah

The secret things belong unto the Lord our God:
but those things which are revealed belong
to us and to our children for ever,
that we may do all the words of this law

—Deuteronomy 29:29

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 40:5

A new philosophy of the future is needed. I believe it should be curiosity about the Universe – expand humanity to become a multiplanet, then interstellar, species to see what’s out there. This is compatible with existing religions – surely God would want us to see Creation?
—Elon Musk

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re going to have to serve somebody

—Bob Dylan

What would Jesus do?

This clichéd old question often comes to mind, but more recently in the past few years. It comes to mind on a personal level: What would Jesus do if the dry cleaners shrunk His favourite trousers, or His metro station was closed for a month for COP-15? It comes to mind on a global level: What would Jesus do if He had to live through a pandemic, a world war, climate change, the destruction of Creation, and then try to reach His followers, like the flock that had clearly gone astray, far more interested in watching a little black-and-white ball kicked about, or the taxes of a former US president? And it comes to mind on a more practical level: What would Jesus do to get the word out — y’know, the word of God?

What would Jesus do if Jesus Christ Himself returned as per prophecy and had to let the world know He was back to kick some ass? Surely, He would take to Twitter.

Today, Twitter has achieved an almost prophetic position in digital communication. We assign figures who amass significant Twitter followings nearly messianic status, regardless — in spite of, in some cases — expertise or good intentions. Their follower numbers are equivalent to authority. With impressions visible, we can now account precisely how much they impress us.

In earlier times, other social networks emerged over common interests and various modes of communication. Music is one example. Putting ideas into song is among the most enduringly powerful and universal ways to interact with large-scale audiences. From Pythagoras to the Pied Piper, Beethoven to Boards of Canada to the Wu-Tang Clan, music has always been for the children.

In Georg Friedrich Handel’s day, it was enough to just write Baroque operas. By the mid-1730s, the German composer’s music had garnered a significant and influential European audience. After settling in London in 1712, Handel made an even bigger name for himself churning out compositions at a feverish pace, founding three opera companies, and presenting more than 40 operas in London’s theatres. Handel wrote the score to one of his most beloved oratorios, The Messiah, in a little over three weeks in late August and early September, 1741. It was like a tweet he tossed off in the middle of the night, in that hazy hypnagogic state between degrees of consciousness.

Some people believed that Handel composed the score in a fit of divine inspiration. Others thought that it was a bit rushed and sloppy, and that he probably squeezed it in between jobs like any journeyman of any trade might do, paying little attention to quality or craft. According to historians, the score was riddled with mistakes — ink blots, scratched-out notes, unfinished passages. Was Handel himself a kind of fake messiah for potentially duping his followers into believing in his genius, when it was likely just another gig for some guy in a powdered wig?

The Libretto to The Messiah is largely comprised of Biblical passages and has none of the earmarks of narrative opera: there is no dramatization of the action, and no characters in elaborate costumes. Soloists approach the stage and address the audience directly as if giving a sermon. The choir and a relatively small orchestra accompany these Acts, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, perhaps the most recognizable piece of Western music ever written.

Insofar as communication goes, it is impossible to calculate how many impressions Handel’s score has accumulated. If it were a tweet, it went viral and continues to do so every Christmas season around the globe. In Montreal, for instance, The Messiah is performed annually at St. Joseph’s Oratory, under the world’s 20th tallest dome.

The Messiah is a Jewish concept for an anointed leader conferred with Holy powers. Those powers are to reveal God’s Word. The twelve disciples who followed Jesus, His Apostles, believed that Jesus was a strong messianic title contender, and they tried to tell as many people about Him as possible.

Matthew, a tax collector, was one of these Apostles. Matthew was different than the other Apostles. He hung out with unrepentant sinners; he collaborated with the Romans. But he was highly educated, literate, and the first person to write down Jesus’s teachings. Having a scribe on staff meant access to social networks Jesus might not have reached.

Messianic language surrounds no one today more than tech-bro billionaire Elon Musk. His supporters regard Musk as some sort of saviour who will lead Earthlings two hundred eighty characters by two hundred eighty characters towards a mythical Martian future. His detractors view him as a petulant child and false idol subject to base carnal desires and flights of megalomaniacal fancy.

Musk sees himself as a visionary savant with a hair-trigger Twitter finger, hellbent upon success, whatever that means. What success means today is not what it meant to Jesus, or even to Handel, who did not conceive of his works as messianic, but rather as calls to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah, as God’s anointed emissary. Jesus might have turned Twitter upside down, whereas Elon bought it.

No Messiah exists today, and if one did, it would be a bitch competing with Musk for followers.◼︎