Sermon for High Mass – Advent 4 Sunday 18 December 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie, Assistant Priest
The first time I ever heard Handel’s Messiah was on Good Friday 1973 in Sydney Town Hall. Being a society still unconsciously rooted in our 18th-century origins, we continue to sing the Oratorio at the season for which Handel intended it rather than at Christmas. The previous day I’d attended the evening Liturgy of Maundy Thursday for the first time, so it was a rich week. The Thursday evening proved by far the more engaging experience and I wished I’d nagged my father to take me to the Good Friday Liturgy instead of the Handel.
Last Monday I saw All the Angels, a play about the first performance of the Messiah in Dublin, in Easter Week 1742. The play brought the Oratorio to life for me in a way that no performance ever has, and I have been thinking about why. Most of those performances have been of that massive town hall variety or of large and competent parish choirs. They’ve mostly left me cold, even when we all scramble to our feet for the H-moment. They have been worthy performances, but they’ve felt to me like the essence of bad liturgy: one thing inexplicably happening after another punctuated by a series of portentous pauses.
At the Sam Wannamaker Theatre we had just eight fine singers from the penumbra of The Sixteen, and three strong actors – David Horovitch as Handel, Kelly Price as Susannah Cibber, the London actress in exile who Handel trained to sing the alto part, and Sean Campion as a variety of characters, among them Charles Jennens, the lonely and intensely religious depressive who assembled the libretto; but his main function was as a one-man Greek chorus, in the character of a Dublin Resurrectionist (a body-snatcher for the doctors of the Infirmary).
Handel’s coaxing of Susannah to abandon her stagey singing and learn to sing truthfully, and the grave-robber’s exposure to the music, leading him back to a still-sceptical faith, depict the transformative power of music and scripture sublimely at work together. It is recorded that Susannah Cibber, who’d fled London after a notorious scandal not entirely of her own making, and for whom Handel transcribed ‘He was despised and rejected’ (originally a soprano aria), sang it with such power and depth of feeling during that first performance that the Reverend Chancellor of St Patrick’s cathedral leapt to his feet and shouted, ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee’.
From ‘Comfort ye..’ we were led allusively through the work so that no one present, even me, could have failed to understand it and be captivated. We had excellent music, of course, but we also had drama which was effectively a commentary on music and text – Handel being imagined, for example, as having taught Susannah to sing that aria by drawing on her own feelings of being outcast; the resurrectionist having been brought up short when confronted with the text
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19:25-26)
The curtain call, of course, was the Hallelujah Chorus, which our own choir sang as the Anthem a few Sunday evenings ago: again I found that much more grabbing than the bland wash of sound you get from a huge chorus.
This has taught me something about Christmas. That which is large and impressive, louder and more unignorable than the last big thing, is the opposite of the incarnation. This play was not a comfortably shared cultural statement or a piece of public pomp; it was the communication of meaning. The communication of truth and meaning. That is what John 1 which we’ll hear on Christmas morning is all about. Christ being the Word means God communicating with us in the language of our own humanity. But that’s next Sunday.
What about this morning’s Gospel, from Matthew?
Matthew goes to some trouble, in the lengthy genealogy preceding today’s Gospel, to link Jesus, via Joseph, to the dodgy Davidic dynasty. It is King Ahaz of that line whose inglorious reign gave rise to the ‘Emmanuel’ prophecy in our first reading today, appropriated by Matthew. Joseph, the otherwise little-known and undistinguished scion of this once-great dynasty, is presented as redeeming it in his own decisive and generous response to a more personal crisis. Unlike Ahaz his fears were not for himself and his reputation but for Mary, his betrothed. Why a link to Joseph, when the story insists on divine paternity? By naming the child, Joseph became his legal father: that is the point. We might further conjecture that Jesus’ appropriation of gentle and loving fatherhood as the primary Christian understanding of our relationship with God was surely nurtured by Joseph, by who he was, however unknown to us. It is the particularity of that relationship and presence which gives rise to our relationship with God, whose nearer presence we celebrate at this season.
The Gospel is God’s unconditional presence with us, Emmanuel. It is not a general presence, nor a shouty Almighty Brian Blessed. It is quiet and it is particular, like Joseph. The incarnation is a quiet event: the shepherds and the wise men a small chorus, not massed extras in a Cecil B DeMille epic. The secular Roman writers Tacitus and Pliny knew about the crucifixion and the new religious sect, but the Empire was blithely unaware of Christmas.
That is as it should be, because ours is a religion of particular relationships. Matthew and Luke’s lengthy genealogies are, in that sense, on the money. This is what critics of Christianity have called the ‘scandal of particularity’. Well if it is a scandal it is as much the core of the gospel as the scandal of the cross, for we humans are nothing ‘in general’. As William Blake wrote,
He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer: [Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion, ch 3 l. 60]
The incarnation is particular because we are particular. We have taken centuries to learn that evangelisation is only effective in particular relationships. Mass rallies stir the troops; mega-churches confirm the self-righteous and prosperous in their cocoon, but conversion happens inch by inch, day by day and personal relationship by personal relationship; each of us is an Evangelist, good or bad, to our neighbour.
Think of the sacraments: they are in every case particular to the participants, not grand spectacles to impress the world. The core of the Mass is the offering of simple elements of food and drink and the receiving of them in communion by particular Christians. Baptism, confirmation, confession, ordination, matrimony, unction – all make and progress the particular relationship of individuals with God.
Forty-three years later I have finally understood why the Mass of the Last Supper was so much more compelling to my teenage self than a grand performance of the Messiah. It was the human scale and truthfulness of it: more human, so also more divine. God is to be found not in the great wind or the raging fire but in the ‘still small voice’; the Word becomes flesh not in an imperial spectacle but in a backstreet stable, and, as Betjeman wrote, ‘lives again in bread and wine.’