The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ… And He shall reign for ever and ever… King of kings, and Lord of lords.
These familiar words from the Hallelujah chorus come at the climax Handel’s Messiah. An apocryphal story tells of how King George II was so moved that he rose to his feet during this chorus. Whether not it is true, audiences still rise to their feet for the Hallelujah chorus.
Over the years we have occasionally attended various traditional Christmas performances of Messiah. Since arriving to teach at Calvin University, I have been able to enjoy the music of Messiah from the other side of the conductor by joining the Calvin Oratorio Society. This year marks one hundred and two years since the Calvin Oratorio Society made its debut performance of Handel’s Messiah. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the concert has been scaled back and various precautions have been put in place. This year will feature a shorter concert of highlights from the Messiah and a smaller choir (I’ve discovered how well a masked choir can sound!).
Attending a performance of Messiah is not a uniquely Christian tradition. Many concertgoers seek out these performances for the artistic merit of the piece, one that has become one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music. I find it interesting that performances of Messiah attract many folks who are not Christians. Certainly, they must admire the enduring artistic merit of the piece, but I wonder how the words are received. What might it be like to memorize Messiah without believing its words? How can one overlook the words of the gospel in its moving solos and majestic choruses set to stirring orchestral movements? Perhaps the words are perceived as nostalgia, myth, or fantasy, comparable to singing mirthful Christmas tunes like Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
In the book, Provocations, the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes about the wise men at the time of Jesus’ birth and how they consulted the scribes to determine where he was to be born. Kierkegaard observes, “Although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him.” He goes on to observe that “Similarly one may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement.” Kierkegaard continues to marvel at the contrast between the scribes and the wise men: “What a difference! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed. They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many scholars, but it did not make them move.”1 It seems that a deep knowledge of Scripture or memorizing every word and note of Messiah are not enough if, like the scribes, we are not moved.
Intellectualism may be one of the occupational hazards of being a professor and scholar whose stock and trade is in ideas. As Christian scholars we must not neglect the heart and a right relationship with Jesus Christ. Abraham Kuyper was an accomplished scholar (as well as a newspaper columnist, professor, pastor, and politician) who recognized the pitfall of intellectualism, comparing it to an administrator with a list of goods stored in a warehouse:
“You sit so comfortably in the office, rather than between the crates, bales and barrels in the warehouse. … Your list, of course, isn’t worth a dime; the value is in the goods down on the warehouse floor. Yet you’d much rather have the tidy list, than to have to deal with the contents of the warehouse … you don’t have to get your hands dirty or get hurt by splinters or spikes … However, the lists don’t represent an actual worth, an experiential reality. Instead, they are only a reflection of reality.”2
As Christian scholars, we must not forget that “lists” of Christian intellectual concepts aren’t “worth a dime” on their own without a living faith. In his book Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, Craig Bartholomew writes that “There is no value in being about ‘kingdom business’ if one has not been born again! The kingdom is first about coming into a right and living relation to the King, and cultural engagement follows from and always builds on this experience.”3
And so, I am reminded during this Christmas season to reflect on this reality. It’s a delight to sing Handel’s Messiah with people who not only enjoy the music, but likely believe the words in their hearts.
This Christmas, let us not remain “quite unperturbed” and read the “Scriptures like so many scholars.” Like the wise men, may we be moved by the gospel story again, and celebrate the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords!
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Christian Courier.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, Orbis Books, 2002, p. 218.
- Abraham Kuyper, Drie Kleine Vossen, J.H. Kok, 1901, p. 14. Excerpt translated here from the original Dutch by Carina Schuurman.
- Craig Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, InterVarsity Academic Press, 2017, p. 32.