Sunday, December 20, 2009

O tempo eu que eu fico

Blooming Christmas cactus

God says certain words to me at moments in my life, moments when he wants to emphasize a point. To bring me to a crux of humility. And I love him for it. I do. I love him like Saint Teresa of Avila did, on her bed in the monastery.

Tonight it was when the Amens from the Messiah flooded my speakers, on the iTunes random shuffle that I insist on using at all times. That way God can speak to me, through the intersection of random electrons in my computer circuits.

When I was a little lost American kid in Bangkok, one of the few cultural events my parents dragged us to was a complete rendition of Handel’s Messiah, performed every Christmas. It was one of the few ways we could get into the spirit of the season. Thailand is a Buddhist country, and the idea of Christmas hadn’t caught on yet. The weather didn’t help. Bangkok is the hottest city in the world, averaging daytime and nighttime temperatures, and winter for us was a week where it didn’t get above ninety degrees.

I don’t remember where the music was performed, other than it feeling distant from home, maybe a Catholic church, where wooden window slats opened onto a tropical garden that felt like Gethsemane, while slow ceiling fans circled above us. Every year, all three of us kids would fall asleep, especially during the Passion Week doldrums at the center of the oratorio, when the bass and the tenor sing recitatives about how much Christ suffered. During intermission, we drank Milo, non-American powdered hot chocolate, curling our hands around the paper cups in defense against the chilly seventy-degree weather. This contributed to our sleepiness.

If you know anything about the Messiah you know that the whole thing was written in 21 days, when Handel locked himself in an attic apartment, had food shoved under his door, and saw the face of God. At the time, he was a rather mediocre eighteenth-century composer at a low point in his career, on the edge of starvation, and paralyzed on his left side by a stroke, or so the legend goes. At the end of his rope, he grudgingly agreed to set a friend’s libretto to music.

The whole thing is brilliant, of course, and even stands up to the Southern Baptist church choirs that butcher it every year. The first section has most of the famous Christmas bits. But even those are more surprising and relevant than you expect. “Comfort ye my people, saith your God,” the tenor sings, crying unto Jerusalem that her warfare is accomplished and iniquity is pardoned. Even if you don’t believe in God, at Christmas, it’s hard not to believe that this means something. Maybe our warfare really has been accomplished.

When Handel dives down into Easter, where it gets very dark, and little children in the audience go to sleep, the text is surprising. “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” And “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” Not exactly the Christmas of poinsettias and jolly old elves, but this is the section that ends with the Hallelujah chorus, which, as legend has it, also woke up King George. He jumped up, and everyone else had to follow.

After coming back with the resurrection, the chorus simply becomes the angels singing at the throne of God. “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” begins the soprano. Everything’s over, the whole vast saga, and good has won and evil has been vanquished and the apocalypse is done.

Then you check your program, and you see that one little word printed there, “Amen,” and you sigh to yourself. “Phew. It’s almost over.” But having seen the face of God, for 21 days in a row, Handel can’t let the thing end. The Amens begin quietly, a slow rising melody, echoed by the tenors, then altos, then basses, then sopranos, and they build, and build, and build, for a full twelve minutes. The melody is sweet, but the triumph of victory is gone.

As if he’s saying, “Sure, I know all of this is too good to be true. Maybe the nations still furiously rage together, maybe none of the dead have risen. But isn’t it beautiful anyway? Don’t you wish it were true? Can’t you believe, just for tonight?” And still the Amens keep building, wave after wave, and the sopranos casually hit the high notes and the timpanis break out and it’s triumphant and beautiful but still sad and you don’t want it to be over, you don’t ever want it to be over, and just when you think that it never will be over everything goes dead silent and you think, please let there be more. And there is. At the final moment, not one, but two Amens. Even then he can’t let it go.

But then it really is over. And you go back into the muggy tropical night, and it’s really really late, it feels later than you’ve ever stayed up before, and your little brother’s still asleep and your dad’s going to carry him to the truck and you know that you’re going to fall asleep too as you drive across town and then you’ll be carried up to bed, but in that moment it’s all true. You believe it all. And you will, every time you hear it, for the rest of your life.


Magrat said...


kolinko said...

Beautiful. Merry Christmas, M! God is with us. Amen.

Whatsnewell? said...

Melissa....thank you for writing this post....your take on Handel and his experience writing the Messiah was eloquent, enlightening, moving, captivating and inspiring. Your writing has moved to a new level these past few posts. God bless you, and Merry Christmas!

Melissa said...

Thanks all. And Merry Christmas!

A LIttle Birdy said...

Hi Melissa, I enjoyed your reflections on Handel's Messiah. Here's the web address of Smithsonian Magazine's article on Handel's master work that was published in December.

ericamjhenry said...

Oh man. That brings back so many memories and makes me want to start making the girls sit through it early so that they have the same experience of starting to love it early.