Sunday, December 19, 2010

Welcoming the Messiah

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.

In this time of Advent, preparation for the Lord's coming in both remembrance and reality, I was delighted when Handel's Messiah was to be performed at a Methodist church in Seoul.  The Messiah runs deep in my family's blood.  I grew up making the pilgrimage to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa,  many years with my family to hear the 3 hours performance at my parents' alma mater.  The director back in those days was Weston Noble.  The chorus numbered in the 100's.  My dad would join the chorus as an alum and my sister and I would sit with mom in the bleachers.  I remember in those early days groaning about how boring and long it was.

Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.

Now I'm an adult living near Seoul where a divided peninsula has been a bit shaky.  The words of the bass recitative ring a bit differently in my ears - words about God shaking "all nations."  Here I sit amongst 400 Koreans and Westerners listening to another 3-hour performance of the Messiah.  There are about 70 in the chorus and another 30 or 40 in the orchestra.  Believe it or not, the director is Weston Noble, now in his mid-80's.


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, Counselor,  Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

When I attended Luther College (like everyone else in my family), I sang in the Messiah under Weston Noble's direction each of the four Christmases.  It was a highlight of my winters.  I remember him teaching all 700 - 800 singers about the text and how it interacted with the music.  During Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, and Prince of Peace, he would close his eyes and drink in the magnificence of the moment.  So did I.

And suddenly, there was with the angel a heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men."

I remember Dr. Noble making us believe WE were the heavenly host.  The soprano would announce our coming and suddenly we'd be singing "Glory to God. . ."  At the end of the piece, the strings play lighter and lighter the same few measures.  Dr. Noble would tell the strings players WHY they did that; they were playing the part of the last little angel rising to heaven and disappearing.  Sitting in the upper balcony of the Methodist Church, I could see him direct the strings the same way and I could HEAR that last little angel disappearing.

Why do the nations rage so furiously together. . . 

These words to the bass air held a new significance in the wake of the recent trouble between North and South Korea.  I sit here marveling at how loudly and meaningful the words of such ancient texts ring today.  My husband and I are sitting behind the US Ambassador to Korea and other dignitaries in the VIP section.  I pray that the leaders can find ways to Peace,  and I marvel at how so much of the Messiah is about bringing Peace to Peoples and Nations.


Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!


The booming Hallelujah Chorus is the most familiar song of the Messiah by the general population. Heck!  Even Anna walks around the house singing it at random times.  (When I was a little kid this was about the time I'd wake up again from dozing on the hard bleachers in the Luther College gym.)  It is tradition for the audience to stand during this chorus.  Rumor has it that the King himself stood upon hearing it and thus everyone else in the joint did the same.  To this day audiences stand when the Hallelujah Chorus begins.  I wonder how sophisticated this group is.  As expected, everyone rises to their feet.  The chorus and orchestra sound glorious.  We are transported to another place and time.  Chills.

Shortly will be my favorite of all the pieces: Worthy is the Lamb and the Amen Chorus.  One leads right into the next.  When I was a child I hated the Amen Chorus.  I would make fun of it saying, "They just repeat Amen over and over for 5 minutes, what's the point?"  Now it is the point where for decades I have waited for Weston Noble, a man of impeccable character and faith, to ascend directly into heaven.  My senior year at Luther we had 1000 people praising God through the Messiah.  Imagine 800 singers and 200 musicians playing and singing "Amen!"  I simply love the glory of the Amens overlapping one into the next Soprano, Tenor, Bass, Alto.  They weave and flow and rise to heaven in a glory fit for God himself.  My heart fills with the music.

It is Christmas in Seoul!


Worthy is the Lamb; Amen!

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