This is a repost that I like to share at this time of year.
Handel’s Liberation “Halleluiah!”
It’s a word from a chorus many know well, especially at this time of year. I’m grateful that I’ll have the privilege to sing Hallelujah a multitude of times this week. Ann Arbor’s UMS Choral Union has the longest annual tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah in the entire world. We’ve done this every year consistently since 1879. We’ll do so again this weekend.
While I haven’t sung this 139 times in a row, I’ve sung the Hallelujah Chorus innumerable times. Yet I’ve learned something new in the opportunity to sing The Messiah in its entirety. Based on where it’s placed in the greater work, the Hallelujah Chorus isn’t a chorus joy-filled triumphalism. It’s about liberation.
It’s about human liberation from oppression — deliverance from oppression caused by other humans. This becomes clear when we hear what precedes the famous chorus:
The bass soloist sings,
Why do the nation so furiously rage together?
And why do the people imagine a vain thing?
Then the chorus sings,
Let us break their bonds asunder,
and cast away their yokes from us.
Then the tenor soloist sings,
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn,
The Lord shall have them in derision.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,
Thou shalt dash them like a potter’s vessel.
That’s when the chorus responds with “Hallelujah!”
It might seem like an odd time to jump in and rejoice. But if we view this less as the powerful (including God) doing destruction for the sake of destruction, and instead, view this as liberation for the oppressed (God standing with them in power) the Hallelujah Chorus has a completely different purpose and tone.
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. . .
Not standing above and dominating as an oppressor,
but standing among the people as a powerful Liberator —
a Liberator who invites the participation of the people in their own liberation.
(“Let us break their bonds asunder”)
King of Kings and Lord of Lords. . .
Not a tyrant kind of King or Lord,
but King and Lord that is revealed as fully human —
a vulnerable child,
a poor carpenter,
Throughout our performances, I’m going to think about all of these things when I sing that glorious Hallelujah over and over. And I’m going to pray for liberation in our world and commit to the reality that bonds will be broken.
And the audience will add their voices too.