I climb onto the platform in the dark, lit only by a green spotlight, my feet bare and my clothes a Sunday school teacher’s idea of first-century Judea garb. The ominous chords of an organ fill the nave as the audience holds their breath, and I crouch and stare at the floor until finally my bass voice fills the room:
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
God could have redeemed His creation however He saw fit and yet chose to step inside of it, to become part of it, and to rebuild it from the inside out.
And gross darkness the people,
But the Lord shall arise upon thee,
And His glory shall be seen upon thee,
And the gentiles shall come to the light,
And kings to the brightness of thy rising.
As I sing, the star mounted on the wall behind me lights up, filling the room with a glow familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a cheap Christmas lawn display. Still, to those listening to the words, who recognize what the star means, it’s a moment whose power is palpable. The timeless music of Händel and the timeless words of Isaiah are enough to shake anyone to their core, even with the rickety, DIY aesthetics.
Another successful performance.
Another year, another Messiah.
Every Advent in my current home of Tulsa, Oklahoma, all the Lutheran congregations in town get together to perform most of the nativity section of Händel’s most enduring (by a wide margin!) work. It’s famously the second-longest-running production of Messiah in the country (the oldest is somewhere in Missouri, or something), and this year we celebrated our 95th anniversary.
Between you and me, though? The show is starting to show its age.
Instead of the tuxes and dresses you might expect from a classical music presentation, we wear homemade nativity-scene-esque gear; the show is punctuated with some very dated arrangements of traditional carols; the whole thing is accented with “special effects” like the aforementioned light. (Incidentally, the show is so old that it actually predates the invention of the dimmer switch; rumor has it that when the light-up star was introduced, they had to gradually increase its brightness by slowing plunging two live wires into a bucket of water.)
I’ve been involved, on and off, for four years. They took me in despite the fact that I didn’t know a single note of the recitative, in part because of my booming baritone voice (not a brag—it’s not like having a useful voice is an accomplishment), and in part because they’re perpetually desperate for bass soloists. The recitative is one of the simplest, and most fun to sing in the work, so I’ve always been happy to do it.
At times, though, the thing is kind of a slog.
Rehearsals are in the middle of Sunday afternoon, which, combined with church attendance, always makes me feel like my whole day is shot. The atmosphere of the cast has always been a bit cold and ingrown (but maybe that’s just the Lutheranness of the whole thing). And the DIY aesthetic is by turns charming and eye-rolling. It’s a show that feels rough around the edges—but then again, maybe that puts it perfectly on theme.
Händel composed Messiah in a span of just 24 days, which is kind of amazing considering the full work is more than three hours long. Legend has it that the whole thing was done in a fit of divine inspiration, Händel’s unstoppable pen scribbling as fast as it could at the behest of a chorus of angels. After he finished the famous “Hallelujah” chorus, so the legend goes, a servant was forced to break down his door, having noticed a protracted silence and fearing the worst.
He discovered his master, prostrate on the floor, quill still in hand and bleeding ink into the carpet. Händel looked up at him, quivering with tears in his eyes, and gasped, “I saw all heaven opened before me.”
It’s a great story. And it’s almost definitely made up.
The truth about Messiah is actually strikingly mundane for a work that’s become so highly thought of in the public consciousness. Händel wrote the music quickly because that was what Händel did. He was just a fast writer. Part of his secret was that he borrowed tunes from older compositions—when you don’t have a new idea, just reuse an old one (this is known as the “Nickelback approach” to songwriting). The process was less about divine inspiration than it was about cutting corners.
Still, the first performance was a success. It was a charity show, produced to raise funds for those trapped in debtors’ prison, and thanks to the effort of Händel and his musicians, 142 of them had their cell doors thrown open. Plus, the notices were good, and—well—the oratorio itself went down in history. Groups around the world put it on every year.
And I guess I’m a part of that legacy. Which is cool.
Popular culture is in love with the idea of the Inspired Genius. For some reason, we like to imagine that every great artistic work sprung fully formed from the mind of a single brilliant man (or woman). In reality, though, the act of creation is never so glamorous—for those of us who write, it usually means finding the right people to steal ideas from, and then rewriting stuff over and over again till it’s not-terrible. Even God spent six days trying to get the universe right—and even longer redeeming it.
Star Wars is on everyone’s mind lately, and it makes a good example. Up until the terribleness of The Phantom Menace, many believed in George Lucas as a prototypical Inspired Genius, the man wielding the magic wand that made dreams we never even knew we had come true. And of course that was all nonsense.
Just like everything great, Star Wars was cobbled together from leftover scraps of previous works. The setting was ripped from Flash Gordon, the characters all stock tropes from Westerns, the dialog stylized after pulp comics, and the plot line ripped wholesale from a Kurosawa samurai epic.
It’s easy to imagine the fanboy disappointment upon learning how derivative the defining action film of the last four decades is, but so often this is exactly what creation is—not waving your hands and making something brand-new out of thin air, but stepping inside what already exists, repurposing it, and making it your own. Not creating, but recreating, just like a handful of Okie Lutherans who, a century ago, took Händel’s notes, Scripture’s words, and some less-than-cutting-edge electrical equipment to create a show that’s become a staple of its community.
“Behold, I make all things new.”
I have to admit I was surprised when I saw Disney had bought Star Wars and intended to make more of it. It had been 30 years since a good Star Wars movie had come out, and weren’t the movie geeks on Reddit always complaining that Hollywood was out of ideas? Who in the world wanted more Star Wars?
But obviously the past couple of years have proven me wrong. I can’t log onto Facebook without seeing a new trailer being obsessed over, a new fan meme being coined, a new argument about whether the prequels were actually that bad (they were). People say they want something new, but they almost never mean it—ticket sales for The Force Awakens are proof enough of that, as is continued attendance at the All-Lutheran Messiah.
People don’t want creation—they want redemption. They want to see the things they love—all the broken, tired, worn-out things that used to sparkle and shine—they want to see them made new. They yearn for a hero who will step inside a broken creation, turn it around, and make it his own.
Excitement for Tulsa’s All-Lutheran Messiah is beginning to wane. In its heyday, it had a choir of nearly 200; these days, it’s down to 80 or 90. The non-Händel music hasn’t been updated since the ’60s, which gives the whole thing a creepy Davey-and-Goliath sort of feel. We receive less and less support from First Lutheran Church, the congregation that first put it on (and which, along with the rest of its parent denomination ELCA, is aging and dying off). Thrivent Financial, the Lutheran mutual fund that used to contribute to it heavily, is doing its best to look less and less Lutheran these days (you gotta hedge your bets in troubled times, after all). And the Christmas pageant get-up is starting to seem hokey at best and culturally appropriative at worst. (But man is a tunic comfy. Every time I slip one on, I want to murder the guy who invented pants.)
There are those who are determined to keep it going, at least until it hits its 100th anniversary in 2020. There are efforts to institutionalize it into a 501(c), complete with a board of directors and a dedicated treasury.
I hope it works. I don’t want to see it die.
“Behold, I make all things new.”
It’s a quote that’s often on my mind this time of year, as the days get shorter and the nights colder, and we hide inside from the encroaching dark, singing the songs we’ve always sung, and telling the same stories again and again, about ghosts and gods and kings and men who came to earth to save us from the dark about to swallow us whole. Stories about lights emerging from the darkness—not just to drive the darkness out, but to turn it to light.
What does it mean?
Advent is a time of re-creation. A time when we remember the God who could have redeemed His creation however He saw fit and yet chose to step inside of it, to become part of it, and to rebuild it from the inside out. The story of Christ isn’t like the story of Noah, who silently watched God destroy His creation; nor is it like the story of Moses, who pled desperately for mercy when God threatened to do it again—it’s the story of God handing Himself over to creation to be destroyed. Turning things inside out.
Not making new things, but making things new.
The nice thing about singing in a show that closes with the “Hallelujah” chorus is you’re guaranteed a standing ovation when you finish. Each time we finish the final number and immediately turn to face the (rather garish) statue of Christ that adorns the altar behind us, the crowd—many of whom spent the whole movement with their hands raised to heaven, because apparently even Pentecostals come to the All-Lutheran Messiah (and, to our credit, we don’t even blink!)—erupts into sustained applause.
And I know it’s probably exaggerated. I know the show is pretty amateur, pretty rickety. But I still climb into it every year. Still try to make it as good as I can. And, whatever else you may say about it, the show seems to connect. People hear the story. And that’s something.
I think that’s the lesson of Christmas, or one of them, anyway—that to make something new, you have to make it your own. You have to climb inside it and rearrange it from the inside out. Pieces get recycled, reused, and put back where they were always supposed to be. New light is shone in dark corners, and the image of creation is remade in the image of creator.
Creation isn’t a sudden moment of inspiration. How could it be? It’s not an act, but a process—creation, recreation, revision, and finally, eventually, perfection. Like the continual reinvention of Star Wars; or like me, rewriting this essay until it finally made sense (maybe!); or like Händel, rearranging old, faithful melodies and old, faithful words, until the prison doors burst open and the debtors are set free.
Or like a God, remaking His creation into His own image, piece-by-piece, from the inside out.