Friday, December 4, 2015

Handel's Messiah and the Killing in San Bernardino

What then are we to say about these things? 
If God is for us, who can be against us? 
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:31, 35, 37-39

What then are we to say about these things? 

After the shooting in San Bernardino, which was the second mass shooting of that day, what can we say? How does our faith speak to such horrific events?

Last Sunday afternoon I attended a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport.

It was the complete “Messiah,” not a selection of “favorites” pretending to be the real thing. So it was long. Two and a half hours. But it was wonderful. Elaine, who sings in the chorus, had told me repeatedly that I did not have to go just because she was singing, and afterward she inquired anxiously how I had endured. “What’s not to like,” I answered. “It begins with Isaiah and ends with Paul. What could be better?”

And then we talked about the individual pieces and the movement through the scriptures. Those verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans provide the text for one of my favorite pieces.

Our conversation moved from the verses in Romans back to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which is the theological and emotional center of the oratorio. I told Elaine that I found it incredibly moving when everyone stood and the chorus sang, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth . . . Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

If you ask me what I believe about the resurrection, I will tell you that I am long past anything that sounds like a resuscitated corpse or a flying body. I don’t think Jesus popped out of the grave like a groundhog on February second. And a close examination of the Gospel accounts reveals an understated sense of mystery that is somewhat at odds with our tendency toward an Easter Sunday extravaganza.

There is a sense in which the “Hallelujah Chorus” does not fit very well with my theology. 

I was well into what might have been a long dissertation on this when Elaine interrupted my reflection to say, “Yes . . . but it’s true!”

Of course, that’s the point. It is moving because it is true. 

Fifty years ago this past spring, at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the State Capitol. Recognizing the frustration of the long struggle for civil rights, he drew on the poetry of James Russell Lowell and William Cullen Bryant, and a sermon by Theodore Parker, to preach about the meaning of resurrection:

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir) 

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir) 

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir) 
How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because "you shall reap what you sow." (Yes, sir) 
How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long) 

Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak) 
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir) 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir) 
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, 
Keeping watch above his own. 
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

Handel’s “Messiah” is about faith in its simplest form. It does not focus on social justice as Jesus did. But without that faith it is hard to sustain the struggle for justice and peace. We are always proclaiming Easter in a Good Friday world. 

And our faith is that Easter has the power to transform Good Friday. We don’t yet have the answers to gun violence. But we will. And we don’t yet know how to prevent terrorism. But we will. 

Until the kingdoms of this world
have become the kingdom of God
and he shall reign
forever and ever.
Revelation 11:15

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