Messiah at Burnley

I attended a superb performance of Georg Handel’s Messiah last week at Burnley Parish Church. The building was as cold as one might expect, though members of the audience were wisely wrapped up, and I in my warm, sheepskin coat. Several pieces moved me to tears, especially Worthy is the Lamb. I also recalled my school music teacher’s attempt at getting us third year boys to sing For Unto Us, calling out “Rest, rest” and tapping his desk with a ruler between the lines. Outside the gates, a faithful evangelist had been distributing Messiah tracts, above, and several folk were observed poring over them before it began.

Attending a performance of Messiah is an established December custom among England’s middle classes, and long may it continue, yet I wondered at its timing. Such concerts are invariably held in the Christmas run-up, yet much of the music is about the Lord’s passion, resurrection and exaltation. Although various prophecies of His incarnation are sung, one cannot sincerely describe it as a Christmas or Advent piece. Good Friday and Easter would be equally appropriate calendar slots in which we might go to hear it. Perhaps the tradition is a beautiful reminder that the Child of the manger came in order to grow, and die, and live again; that He would ascend to the Father and come again to judge the quick and the dead. Whatever glittering razzamatazz and hollow celebration this month has in store, never forget that He whose birth is supposedly marked also died and rose, and by that is our salvation wrought and sealed. Truly, the manger is overshadowed by a bloody cross, the stable by an empty tomb.

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40, vv.1–3