Yesterday afternoon was our annual “Messiah Sing” event. Our church’s charming white clapboard sanctuary was festooned with Christmas greenery. Last night’s snow still hung heavily on the Norway spruce trees. The hillside gleamed white through the ancient glass panes. Singers representing every age and talent level squeezed themselves into the creaky pews, designed for a generation of congregants of lesser girth.
As one of only two basses at that particular moment, I had just finished butchering the usually glorious chorus “Let all the angels of God worship Him.” As usual, I muttered my apologies to those nearby who had shown regrettable judgment in their seat selection, and slumped back to recover and take in the lovely alto solo:
“I know that my redeemer liveth…” she sang, “…and that He shall stand on the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God…. For now is Christ risen from the dead … the first-fruits of them that sleep.”
It’s Christmas time.
Hmm. “For now is Christ risen.” Christmas? Why are we singing about the Resurrection at Christmas time? In fairness, I don’t think that Handel ever claimed that The Messiah was a Christmas cantata. But to 21st century religious ears, it’s the physical nature of everything – whether incarnation, resurrection, or the renewal of all things – that stands out in Handel’s score.
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name EMMANUEL, God with us.”
It’s pretty earthy stuff. Virgins conceiving, the eyes of the blind being opened, valleys being exalted, and mountains made low. Christ is risen bodily from the dead. And yes, worm-eaten bodies are seeing God as they somehow stand in his presence in the flesh.
Something tells me this score wouldn’t have made it in our day. We are spiritual people; or we are material people. Either we inhabit the world of science and earthy matter; or we dwell in the realm of ideas, heaven and spirits. The dualism of our age gives us this awful choice: This world? Or the next?
I think that’s one reason why so few contemporary religious people ever bother to think seriously about stewardship of the Creation – wetlands and forests, amphibians and invertebrates. We tend to run with the “spiritual” types, and really, what does the fate of a species of butterfly or toad matter in “the land to which we’re bound?”
But if you’re prone to this kind of thinking, don’t count Handel and his Reformation contemporaries in your fellowship. For them, the kingdom of Heaven and the created Earth don’t come apart so easily. Handel’s Redeemer is born in a barn, and cradled in a feeding trough; he promises to stand on his feet upon the Earth on the latter day. And what God did in raising Him from the dead on Easter is exactly what He plans to do for the whole Creation: the risen Christ is “the first-fruits of them that sleep.”
And what, then, follows the first-fruits in this harvest? Why, all the rest, of course. “Behold, I am making everything new,” he declares in the Revelation to St. John. And “everything” means just what you think it means: Everything. Things in heaven and on Earth; things that are visible, like soil or birds or spruce trees; or things that are invisible, like ideas, and music, and spirits.
And if that’s His plan for everything at “the latter day,” what do we think He is doing in the meantime? When we pray daily for the coming of his kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” does it occur to us that we’re praying now to share in the renewal of everything, which He promises?
And here’s the good news: you’re included in this deal – every aspect of you. Because, as the alto sang, in your flesh, you shall see God. Even though you and I are subject to decay – “though worms destroy this body” – in your physical body, you will join all the renewed Creation in looking upon the glory of the Creator in a renewed Earth.
But in case you’re feeling all cozy at this prospect, please remember: This deal isn’t only for you. The whole Creation is groaning for the same bargain we think we’re getting. In her article “The Dominion of Love” in The Green Bible, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it neatly:
If they are here, God made them, and if God made them, God loves them… We humans do not get to make distinctions…. We are here to preside over the dominion of love. Made in the divine image, we are here to love as God loves. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Wait, wait, wait a minute. How does that work? Well, you know how it feels under the shadow of those wings, right? Perfect. So move over. Make room, because there is a whole Creation seeking refuge, and you, you are the spitting image of the One who gives life to all.
From Beloved Planet, we wish you an earthy, physical, genuine Christmas. A baby is born into poverty. His parents narrowly escape genocide, and become immigrants and exiles. He will return to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and release to the oppressed. And He will proclaim: “I am making everything new!”
Merry Christmas! And congratulations! You’re part of the plan.