It was Advent fifteen years ago when I went to heaven.
Not literally: I’m too carnal to be making mystic claims for myself. Rather, I experienced one of those moments of grace and transport the Lord sends for no discernible reason other than as pure gift to delight us.
I was commuting to work and tuned into the local classical station when the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah began.
The beloved composition is actually for Easter, as the libretto indicates. We have Leonard Bernstein to thank for its association with Christmas. His arrangement of Messiah transfers all those Hallelujahs to after the Nativity.
My high school choir performed the Hallelujah Chorus once, which means it’s one of the few pieces of music I understand. (It also makes it more fun to sing along).
Three texts from Revelation comprise the libretto. “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” At first all the voices sing this in unison. Then they begin to call it out to each other, interspersing it with joyful “Hallelujahs.”
Next, in four-part chorus, the voices exult that “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ.”
Finally, the singers jubilantly announce that “He shall reign forever and ever,” again interspersing this with “Hallelujahs,” until the “forever and ever” and “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” assume the same rhythm, and begin to rise higher and higher, gathering in both pitch and intensity.
There follows the silence of probably the most famous and effective caesura known to music before the great, swelling resolution of the final “Hallelujah!”
Legend has it that Handel experienced a vision of heaven while composing the famous chorus. I’m not pushing that story, necessarily, but I can well believe it. Because there I was straining my vocal chords beyond my alto capacity when, right in the middle of the Cabin John Bridge, I was suddenly swept up in the music and imagined all those voices as the great company of saints, praising God, both singly and together.
My heart swelled with joy, and for the first time I “saw” that to see God’s face and sing his praise for all eternity would not be boring, would not mean a crushing of personal identity, but would instead be ecstatic: expressing all you are and simultaneously receiving God’s love, all the while united with every other soul who loves Him.
Words don’t do justice to the intuition, and the experience hasn’t repeated itself, but it still brings me joy to remember it.
I find that there is a musical power in the carols of Advent and Christmas very similar to what I’ve tried to describe here. At least, there is when I’m open to it.
Is it because carols, unlike hymns, were made to be sung outside of Church, by a crowd of people singing together, and therefore create a spirit of communion? Is it because they draw on the most popular folk melodies of each culture—and are therefore more sentimental, and tear at the heart? Is it because baby Jesus has inspired the tenderest poems as lyrics for these songs?
Or is there simply grace present in the season of Advent that makes us more receptive?
Most of the time a song is just a song and a carol, no matter how lovely, is just a piece of music. I find, however, that each year one carol for some reason particularly touches me and I long to hear and sing it over and over, almost as a meditation.
This is particularly true of the neglected Advent carols. One year I fell in love with the martial spirit of the last verse of “When the King Shall Come Again.” You can almost feel the glory of that day if you sing it right!
Last year, in an entirely different mode, the sweetness of “O Come, Divine Messiah” —a song I’d hitherto dismissed as saccharine—captured me utterly.
All of which is simply to make the utterly prosaic point that Advent carols – and there are many beyond “O Come, O Come, Immanuel”—can be an important of preparing our hearts for Christ. Sometimes a beautiful melody or lyric can slip right past our defenses, warming what is frigid and making straight His paths.