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December 23, 2000
Column #1008


     Each Christmas I like to suggest a ''perfect Christmas gift.'' To be perfect, it should be inexpensive and communicate the importance of the character of Jesus Christ whose 2000th birthday we are celebrating on Monday.

     I suggest that you give your loved ones ''Messiah,'' the greatest of all compositions, whose music and message ''has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all of the theological works ever written,'' as one expert put it.

     No other brief work so eloquently portrays the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus - and its meaning to people of all ages in all times.

    Yet I do not suggest that you take your family to see Messiah as performed by your local symphony, as my wife and I did this week. We heard the National Symphony Orchestra. The music was glorious. But the spiritual content was missing. Why? It was difficult to understand more than isolated phrases of the great work.

     We could understand, ''Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.'' But the rest of that chorus was a blur. When I looked through my program for the words, it was almost impossible to find them amidst 78 pages of articles on other pieces of music being performed in December.

    When I discovered them on page 19F, the words were tiny, and in the darkened concert hall, impossible to read. Though every single word is from Scripture, the program had not a single Biblical reference! During the intermission, I found three pages on Handel's composing of the work, which did not report on his faith. The fact is that after composing the Hallelujah Chorus, he told a servant, ''I think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself.''

     My program even erroneously stated the piece is ''based on the New Testament.''

     Actually, 38 of the 61 selections are from the Old Testament!

     Most of the words on the life and death of Jesus does not come from the Gospels! Quiz yourself. Can you identify the book of the Bible for these texts, and write them down?

1. ''For unto us a child is born, a son is given...''
2. ''Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped...''
3. ''He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.''
4. ''Surely, he hath bourne our griefs and carried our sorrows.''
5. ''He trusted in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him...''
6. ''Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.''
7. ''I know that my Redeemer liveth...''

     The answers: 1. Isaiah 9:6; 2. Isaiah 35:5. 3. Isaiah 53:3. 4. Isaiah 53:4. 5. Psalm 22:8. 7. 6. Lamentations 1:12. 7. Job 19:25. What's remarkable is how much of the Messiah's story was written hundreds of years in advance by prophets.

     Even the significance of Jesus' life for us has roots in the Hebrew Bible. What is the source of this: ''O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?'' They are from Hosea 13:14, but are quoted by St. Paul in I Corinthians 15:55, and are a moving duet by the alto and tenor.

     We have attended Messiah at the National Cathedral, where we were given a readable libretto. But it lacked all Scriptural references. The next year I returned with a Bible with a concordance, so I could look up the Biblical sources.

     But why should a listener have to work so hard? Attending Messiah should be an opportunity for worship.

     What can be done? I have three ideas, if you would like to hear a spiritual Messiah.

     First, send this column with a personal note to your symphony, asking that the text of Messiah be printed in a readable form with Scriptural references, and that house lights be left partly on for easy reading. That's how it is done annually by the Christian Performing Arts Fellowship in Constitution Hall, directed by Patrick Kavanaugh.

     Second, Kavanaugh suggests encouraging your own church to perform the whole Messiah. He says, ''This great work has been captured by the world. If you go to the National Symphony, it is a fund-raising thing. We need to recapture it for the Lord.'' The entire libretto for two hours of singing sells for less than $10. Most churches can afford it. And it can be reused each year.

     Third, you can give the entire performance of Messiah on two CD discs complete with the text and all Scriptural references as a present for as little as $18.

     It is the perfect Christmas gift.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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