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Janie B. Cheaney: Beholding the Lamb in Handel’s Messiah

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WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Beholding the Lamb in Handel’s <em>Messiah</em>

Handel’s oratorio showcases the glorious melody of God’s love for us in Christ


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NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, December 20th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. If you Google Handel’s Messiah, the top video result is this ABC classic video from 2019 at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. 600 singers in formal attire accompanied by piano, cellos, violins, and more. It’s a powerful performance.

MUSIC: And the government shall be upon His shoulders. And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: My first performance in Handel’s Messiah took place in a university production augmented by community members. I was one of the latter--a college dropout in my late twenties who liked to sing. The director (I'll call him Dr. Gunther) was passionate and volatile and had already alienated half the faculty. His Catholic faith was a bounding spring of inspiration but no use in curbing his ego.

Over weeks of rehearsal Gunther exhorted and molded the choir into a mean Messiah machine. On performance night, he told us, "I don't care what you believe, but tonight--just for tonight--sing like you believe this."

I already believed this, but was beginning to wonder why. Was faith entirely a choice, or did the Holy Spirit just muscle in to claim this territory for Christ? The performance didn't answer that question but showed me what (or Who) mattered more.

The first chorus proclaims, "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." Gross darkness covers the people, the bass informs us (accompanied by low strings swirling like fog). "But the Lord shall arise upon them." Dawn comes as his voice climbs the scale and the minor tone brightens.

With the announcement to lowly shepherds of God's promise fulfilled, the air fills with rustling wings as though the angels are too excited to hold still. "Glory to God in the highest!" bursts out of the heavenly band, with "Good will!" tossed about in joyful benediction. The last angel leaves the sky, in a quiver of violins, and the Word becomes flesh and gathers his flock. "Come unto him, all ye that labor . . ."

But then, "Behold the Lamb of God," covered in blood. The music, with its staggering intervals and lashing chords, lays on the stripes. Meanwhile, "All we like sheep have gone astray"--can't you hear it? Giddy, foolish sheep, turning each to his own way, dashing madly toward the pit--until the basses drag the bleeding lamb forward again: "And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."

The resurrection happens offstage, as it were; the tenor reminds us that God "did not suffer his holy one to see corruption." The King of glory enters heaven to a tune both regal and merry, blazing a trail for his people. Soon "The trumpet shall sound" (in a stirring duet with the bass soloist) and we shall be changed into incorruptible creatures shouting, "Worthy is the lamb." The final "Amen" layers the voices of a multitude, of every tribe and nation, pitch and tone, woven into perfect harmony.

As our performance ended, the choir was pumped. Meanwhile the orchestra was murmuring that Dr. Gunther was a terrible director and the alto was fuming over the looks he’d given her. I just sat on the risers, an emotional wreck. I'd been given a surround-sound refresher course in the gospel, plus a glimpse of heaven.

The coming of faith is when Christ inhabits time, with all its controversies and daily grinds, and makes it glow. He was there, and my belief was neither a willful act nor involuntary takeover. It was Him, and it will always be Him, forever and ever. Amen.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

MUSIC: [MESSIAH] Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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