Life & Soul Life and Soul

We like the idea of salvation, until it requires serious engagement

Handel (centre) and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman (1819–88)

On the eve of Advent Sunday I attended Handel’s Messiah performed by the brilliant Schola Cantorum of London’s Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School.

A professional baroque orchestra was the worthy complement to the accomplished choir, yet the soloists were not professionals but boys from the choir. Many are highly gifted musicians. Some of the older ones are already marked for Oxbridge choral scholarships. But naturally their voices do not have the maturity of adults’.

This proved to be a real blessing, for the boys also lack any trace of self-awareness or histrionics that professional soloists can bring to the best-known arias in the oratorio, such as “Ev’ry valley” and “He was despised”. As a result, the scriptural text emerged with a freshness of expression. It was being declared rather than performed, and Handel’s music truly became the servant of the words.

Advent is about declaring the imminence of salvation as an operative reality, not a comforting entertainment. It is about being renewed with the joy of youth and shedding cynicism in the face of the intense joy of first discovery – that of Jesus Christ’s ever new invitation.

This is not just something shaped by the long history of what has already been learnt personally and collectively about the One who comes, and therefore to some extent affected by the corrosive effects of self-will and sin. Salvation once more breaks forth with a beauty both ancient and new. It’s ancient because I recognise it for the hope not just of the ages, but almost of my own immemorial desire, the prequel of my heart’s longings, as well as the icon of their fullest realisation. Like a beautiful secret known long since, but forgotten until now, its coming fills the same huge longing its first entry into history had created. Your Redeemer is his ancient name and the present longs for this promise.

At the end of the concert an elderly lady thanked me for giving the lead, as she put it, in standing up for the “Hallelujah” chorus. I told her I thought that it was George II who was responsible and that I had just risen to my feet by the natural osmosis with which an Englishman knows one does, as he also knows to take off his hat in church and not to reveal how The Mousetrap ends. However, she explained that she had been to a performance in a cathedral recently where the audience were specifically instructed not to stand. (I risked triggering euro-sensitivities by telling her it was probably a new European Union directive.)

Advent Scripture is full of references to rising, standing, waking from inertia, standing atop the mountain, standing erect, heads held high. Changing our bodily posture can have a profound effect on our mental state; it is expressive of our readiness. Merely by standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus we cease in some way to be a passive audience and become participants.

Sir Thomas Beecham famously opined that the English didn’t like music, but they liked the sound that it made. We could say much the same about salvation in this season: liking the idea very much, until it requires serious engagement and the willingness to change to encounter the One who comes.

Advent is the time when we stand up to greet our salvation. Not that our activity controls or causes it. Rather, it signifies our response to the intuition that Our Redeemer is at hand.