Getting a Handel on Easter
Saturday, 23 March 2013
Above the place where George Frederic Handel’s body lies interred in London’s Westminster Abbey, a beautiful wall sculpture depicts the composer leaning over a musical manuscript. Though papers clutter his writing surface, two prominently displayed pages reveal the masterpiece that he is crafting. Towards the top of the desk, a title page curls upward with the word MESSIAH etched across it. Directly beneath Handel’s hands, an unfinished page of music reads, “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
“I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” is the 45th of the Messiah’s 53 movements. It is a soprano aria that draws its text from Job 19:25–26 and 1 Corinthians 15:20. In his passage, Job declares, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” And in 1 Corinthians, Paul affirms, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” This beautiful aria emphasizes the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Drawing from Job and Paul’s words, it declares a conviction that Jesus Christ rose from the dead—and that we too can overcome death because Christ suffered and overcame for all mankind.
Easter commemorates Christ’s perfect life, his selfless suffering, and his subsequent triumph. At Easter we celebrate Christ’s victory over physical death and spiritual death (sin), and we glory in the hope that these victories provide. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Abinadi explains, “And now if Christ had not come into the world…there could have been no redemption. And if Christ had not risen from the dead, or have broken the bands of death that the grave should have no victory, and that death should have no sting, there could have been no resurrection. But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ” (Mosiah 16:6–8).
As Easter approaches, I echo the sopranos who have performed the 45th movement of Handel’s Messiah for over two hundred and fifty years: now is Christ truly risen. The message of this aria and of the whole oratorio feels especially pertinent in this season because it reminds me personally that Christ is my Redeemer. Reflecting on Handel’s Messiah helps me to ponder more deeply the deliverance that Christ provides me daily.
Although we associate the Messiah with Christmas, I believe Handel intended it as an Easter season piece. The opus originally premiered on April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland. It was regularly performed in London during the Easter season throughout his life. On April 6, 1759, Handel himself attended a performance of the oratorio in London’s Covent Garden. He died eight days later—one day after the seventeenth anniversary of the Messiah’s premiere.
Now Handel “sleeps” in the south transept of Westminster Abbey. However, the epitaph on his tomb suggests that he believed, as we can, that the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ. This knowledge can be a light in times of darkness—in times when our lives are touched by death or other forms of separation and loss. As “the light and the life of the world” (Mosiah 16:9), Jesus Christ is the source of that hope. How grateful I am for Handel, whose life and masterpieces remind me that at Easter and always, we can draw upon Christ’s deliverance to experience peace, to feel hope, and to obtain victory.