Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah for the first time. It was at a small university auditorium with a small ensemble and orchestra, the soloists from our local opera program. And it was magnificent (and free). I don’t often get opportunities to go to such events, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
If you’re familiar with the Messiah, you know that it tells the story of Christ, using Scripture throughout every solo and refrain. Handel wrote in a letter after the first ever performance “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.” It’s one of the most well-known pieces of sacred music ever written, and it contains the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” It has been widely circulated that when King George II heard the Messiah for the first time, the Hallelujah Chorus moved him so deeply that he stood in honor of the Christ it proclaimed. And when the king stands, everyone stands. So tradition holds that the audience should stand any time the Hallelujah Chorus is played. The musically educated crowd that we were, we stood.
But in our audience, there were also several young children. My best friend is an elementary music teacher, and she had pointed out several of her students and we greatly enjoyed their reactions as they watched in awe this beautiful music for the first time. And many of them were excited to sing along during the Hallelujah chorus, the first thing they’d heard all night that they recognized.
In the Hallelujah Chorus, toward the end, there’s a rest. The music builds and builds, the choir is singing joyfully and the orchestra is playing robustly. And then suddenly the music stops. And after the loud and joyful chorus, that rest is very abrupt. It’s what we might call a “pregnant pause.” In that rest, you anticipate the last “Hallelujah,” but it’s not quite there yet. That rest is written in the music as a moment of total silence before the final notes, and it fits just so perfectly there.
That night, a small child in the front of the auditorium was singing along exuberantly and didn’t know the rest was coming. And so as the whole rest of the audience was prepared for the rest, and expecting silence, a small child’s voice rang out “Hallelujah!” Of course, it was adorable and we all chuckled.
But for weeks, I haven’t been able to shake the sense that we missed something, not having that silence. I’m not sure why Handel wrote it that way, but it seems there was some purpose to a moment of complete silence in the music right before the end. Maybe it was for the chorus to catch their breath before the last tableau. Maybe it was to highlight the transition signaled in the music at that juncture. Or maybe (and I suspect this is so) Handel recognized the need for a slightly uncomfortable silence in the midst of singing “King of kings and Lord of lords! And he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah!” Maybe Handel knew we would need to stop and think about what those words meant.
Advent is found in the rest. We often attempt to do everything we possibly can during the Advent season. Check your calendar for December if you don’t believe me. In the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we pack in school programs, church programs, parties, caroling, good deeds, family activities, and a lot of calories. It’s so hard to rest in December. But the church calendar has a time of pause built right in. The church calendar tells us to wait for all the celebration and anticipate the coming of Christ. It says that hope, peace, joy, and love all come in their own time. It tells us to stop and consider the silence before the Incarnation, to prepare our hearts for the coming King. It’s a reflection of the “now and not yet” Kingdom of Heaven. Advent is the pregnant pause before the Hallelujah. The theologians behind the calendar did something important by making Advent the beginning of the church year.
Before we begin again with the story of Christ, let us first pause and consider the journey on which we are embarking together. A journey of hope, of peace, of joy, and of Love.