Calvin R. Stapert is professor emeritus of music at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he taught for thirty-eight years, and he is a founding member of the Forum for Music and Christian Scholarship. His most recent book with Eerdmans is Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People, which offers an enriching accompaniment to the beloved oratorio that Stapert considers appropriate for all seasons — including Easter.
Many people inextricably link Handel’s Messiah to Advent and Christmas. At least that’s the case with the oratorio as a whole. People often associate parts of Messiah, especially the “Hallelujah” chorus and “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” with Easter. But with whatever else they may associate the “Hallelujah” chorus, it retains its association with Christmas. Take, for example, the singing of the chorus in the Philadelphia Macy’s and in a Canadian food court this past Christmas shopping period.
Of course, most lovers of Messiah are aware that it sings of much more than the Incarnation. The prophecies and angelic announcement of Christ’s birth take up only about one-third of the oratorio. So I am often asked why its performances almost invariably occur just before Christmas. (I don’t know why.) Some have heard that Handel always performed Messiah during the Lent or Easter seasons. They ask more pointedly: “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to perform Messiah during Lent or Easter?”
Not necessarily. The content of Messiah is no more specific to Lent or Easter than it is to Christmas. Furthermore, all the performances Handel gave of all of his oratorios took place during Lent (sometimes spilling into the Easter season) regardless of content. He never intended them — including Messiah — for liturgical use. He always performed them in concert for ticket-buying patrons. He invariably performed Samson, Saul, Deborah, Judas Maccabeus, and the rest in February, March, or April because that was the “oratorio season,” a vestige of the view that secular entertainment, such as opera, was inappropriate during Lent.
Personally, I like hearing Messiah during Advent, because I find the beginning of the liturgical year to be a good time for hearing and contemplating the whole story that will unfold again during the coming year. But there is no denying that contemplating the whole story is valuable during Lent. Looking back to Christmas during Lent can help us remember that Jesus’ coming into our world was the first step in his humiliation. All the comfort, joy, peace, and healing promised in Part I of Messiah came at the terrible cost that Handel’s music depicts so vividly in Part II. From “Behold the Lamb of God” through “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow,” Handel wrote some of the most compelling music ever for Lenten meditation.
Easter, however — initially and by comparison — seems to get short shrift. Christ’s resurrection is celebrated in only one number — “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell” — and it’s an aria, not a celebratory chorus with trumpets as we might expect. That expectation is so great that many associate “Lift up your heads” and “Hallelujah” with Easter even though both text and context make it clear that “Lift up your heads” celebrates the Ascension, and “Hallelujah” celebrates Christ’s coronation as King of Kings. Of course, both of those events are inseparably linked to the Resurrection as steps in Christ’s exaltation, thus the association of those choruses with Easter is not entirely mistaken.
But it is in Part III that Easter really comes to the fore — not the actual event, but its results. The risen Christ is “the first-fruits of them that sleep,” and in him “shall all be made alive.” We hear that “this mortal must put on immortality,” that death has lost its sting, the grave its victory, and that the risen Christ “makes intercession for us.”
Individual pieces from Messiah, extracted for liturgical use, are seasonally appropriate, but Messiah as a whole is an oratorio for all seasons.
Click on the cover image below to order Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People