December 08, 2016
I recently heard an interview with movie director, Kenneth Lonergan, by host Terry Gross on her program Fresh Air. Lonergan is the director of a recently released movie, Manchester by the Sea. During the interview, Gross pointed out the powerful use of music in the background of the movie in certain scenes. For instance in a very powerful funeral scene they play a piece from Handel’s Messiah, "He Shall Feed His Flock.”
In talking about this piece of music, Lonergan mentioned that he has attended a performance of “The Messiah” almost every year since he was 18 years old. He refers to it as one of his favorite pieces of music. In a transcript of the interview he said of this particular song, “…it’s so beautiful that you’re reminded how beautiful the world really is. When this song is playing your spine just relaxes when you hear those chords and you hear that singing. It’s all about, you know, he shall feed his flock, and then then the next one is come unto him all ye that are heavy-laden.And this idea that God is going to take care of you and comfort you and relieve you of your burdens and relieve you of your sorrow is a wonderful, if imaginary idea. …there are so many things that are analogous to what I suppose is a religious feeling of being cared for by a supernatural entity in who I don’t believe.”
Lonergan is an atheist. No matter how much truth he finds in the words of scripture (the text of The Messiah is all directly from scripture) he won’t let himself believe that there is a God who can actually offer the kind of comfort and healing that this piece of music depicts.
The powerful witness of scripture can move people, comfort people, change people’s perspective, but evidently not move them (at least Lonergan) across the finish line of faith in God.
This season of the year is about a story, a story we only find in the scripture. Handel’s “The Messiah” traces the scriptures of the Old Testament that point to the birth of Jesus. It concludes with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. If people won’t read the Bible, have them listen to Handel’s The Messiah!
The power of scripture was reinforced in my heart and soul once again this past Sunday. We had a husband and wife team as guest vocalists at our church. They are part of a performance of Handel’s Messiah in January that will be broadcast via livestream to three different prisons. When they arrived we were told that the wife’s mother was very ill. They sang a piece from The Messiah that knocked the socks off our congregation. They received a standing ovation. While I was preaching, prior to their singing for a second time, they received word that her mother had passed away. They stepped out of the sanctuary. Much to our surprise, they returned shortly after and returned to sing their second song. They insisted on singing for us in spite of their shock and grief.
They sang, “Comfort Ye” from The Messiah. The context brought significance to the lyrics that I had never experienced before.
They received another standing ovation that was clearly a way of praising God for his power and ability to bring the right words at the right time.
I wish Kenneth Lonergan could have had that experience, although it may not have moved him to belief in God.
Sometimes we are so entrenched in our beliefs, ideas, and philosophies that heaven and earth cannot move us. It is a sad reality.
Let’s make sure we are open to anything new God wants to teach us during this season of the year when we review this very familiar, but powerful story.