The night was clear, cold and starry as my husband and I finished dinner near the wharf in Annapolis, Md., and headed down Randall Street toward the United States Naval Academy. Tiny white lights and graceful swags of fresh evergreen with burgundy bows on charming colonial houses beckoned with the warmth of nostalgic Christmases past. But I felt dismally cold inside, politically shredded, at odds with people. What was truth anymore? How could our country be this irreparably divided? Tonight was an early Christmas gift; I wanted to savor it. But I also wanted to reserve the right to stay angry about injustices as I perceived them.
We followed signs for pedestrians to enter the Academy and threaded our way through security, much like in an airport. Then we were fed out into the cold night again to make our way to the Academy Chapel to hear the 70th annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah.
Soon we could see the chapel’s luminous dome rising valiantly through the trees like the November supermoon. A man walking in front of us dismissively swept his hand in its direction and said, “Of all the buildings on this campus, can you believe this is the one that costs the most to maintain?”
He’s as grumpy as I am, I thought. But at the same time, something in me had perked up at the building’s majestic beauty. I didn’t want him to ruin it.
We picked up our tickets at Will Call, then split up to go to the restrooms. As I walked down the hall, the women’s chorus in a nearby rehearsal room burst into an energetic refrain. Something buried deep within startled to attention. Choral music. Had this died within me, too?
We settled into our seats in the farthest right corner of the rear balcony. A woman from the row in front of us stood up and grimaced as she held onto the railing and moved into the small open space right in front of us to stretch her legs. Here we were, just three or four of us out of sorts. What state were the hundreds of others of us in?
Eight o’clock arrived, and we prepared for a formal introduction to the evening’s performance. But none came. Instead, the audience quieted as members of The United States Naval Academy Glee Club took their positions and the conductor moved to the podium.
The overture began, familiar and anchoring. Then the tenor soloist effortlessly spun musical silk as he proclaimed, Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God . . . .
A dial in my frozen soul switched to defrost. I had forgotten these were the opening words. I had played oboe in Messiah orchestras when I was younger and had sung many of the choruses with choirs. But I was immersed in the execution of notes and phrases and certainly didn’t need them like I did now. I felt like a wounded soldier in triage with a compassionate attendant leaning over me whispering, “It’s going to be all right; let us take care of you now.”
. . . The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come . . . for he is like a refiner’s fire. . . .
One after another, the soloists filled the chapel with long and gloriously complex vocal runs. These were magnificent, world-class singers with monster résumés and voices so rich and resonant the Alto and Bass could have hollowed the center aisle into a canyon, and the Soprano and Tenor could have levitated the Chapel dome. The Glee Club complemented them, harnessing the energy of multitudes of heavenly beings in their ebullient delivery and immaculate diction . . . and the guh-LORy, the guh-LORy of the Lord shall be revealed . . . all the way to the back wall where we were sitting. Precisely synchronized in the raising, opening, closing and lowering of their music folders, as you would expect from a military academy, this was a night of perfection.
But not perfection that drew attention to itself. These superb performers had managed, by their extensive and skillful preparation, to get completely out of the way. Only the music was left to speak.
. . . For unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace . . . .
I had thought I was in an impenetrable state when I arrived. But the truth was, I was raw and full of fissures raked open for healing light and love to pour in. So that when the words were sung, All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the tender and heartbreaking strains of the orchestra supporting the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all were played, I broke wide open and wept. For politicians vying for power, for entrenched citizens railing against each other, for atrocities in Aleppo, for oppression, inequality, violence, cyber hacking by foreign governments – and for the bitter judgment in my own heart.
When the performance ended with the glorious swell of the scripture from the Book of Revelation, Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and forever, AMEN, the audience sprang to its feet and applauded for what felt like five to ten minutes. The soloists took their well-deserved bows, but you had the feeling that they, too, were bowing before the Great Healing That Had Happened Among Us. We had corporately affirmed what Howard Thurman named when he wrote in his book, Deep Is the Hunger:
“There must be always remaining in everyone’s life some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful, and by an inherent prerogative, throws all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness, something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright white light of penetrating beauty and meaning – then passes. The commonplace is shot through with new glory; old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.”
My face was wet when it was all over. Neither of us wanted to leave. Then Rob pointed overhead and said, “Look.” I hadn’t even noticed. Suspended above us the whole time was a ship seemingly buoyed by the arms of Jesus.
The title of a country song, of all things, welled up unexpectedly like a prayer within me.
Jesus, take the wheel.
Note: After weathering chronic, desperate, paralyzing illness himself, and his servants and musical collaborators the fury of his occasional rage and fussy temperament, Handel was transformed by composing Messiah. “No money for this work,” he insisted. “I will never take money for it, never. It shall always go to the sick and the prisoners. For I was sick myself, and it cured me; I was a prisoner and it set me free.”
I respected the note in the program that photography and unauthorized video were strictly prohibited. But after the program had ended, and since we were in the very back row and interfering with no one’s view, I couldn’t help pulling out my phone midway through as the performers did an encore of “Hallelujah Chorus.” Even though my husband and I play this little clip often just to recapture the healing transcendence we so desperately needed that night, I realize trying to record something this magnificent onto a tiny cell phone is doing it complete and utter injustice. Still, it moves us. And so we keep playing it. Over and over.
My deepest appreciation to the superb directors and performers: