Everybody grows up with the Hallelujah Chorus,and–
Well, okay. Not everybody. I remember, with mild horror, the time our church choir sang it. People slowly stood in an incredibly confused fashion in the first service; in the second, everyone sat.
Never underestimate musical illiteracy.
Still, the Hallelujah Chorus is very familiar. Partly because it’s not that hard to sing (for Handel, anyway), and partly because it’s happy, it gets performed a lot on its own. And people (some of them) remember it because they have to stand up (and don’t want to).
But I recently got a chance to sing the whole Messiah this fall (well, most of it), and it was quite an experience. I’ve heard the Messiah before, but I’m pretty visual, and there were things that I missed.
There’s the aria “He Was Despised and Rejected” that talks about Christ giving his cheek to those that “pluck-ed out the hair.” I could only guess that once upon a time that sounded awful. Now it sounds almost humorous–today’s hair plucking usually involves standing with tweezers in front of a mirror. Word associations change over time, and “pluck,” I guess, must be one of them.
On a more serious note, the Hallelujah Chorus comes after an aria about God dashing Christ’s enemies in pieces like a potter’s vessel. It made me pause and wonder what a modern Messiah would sound like. Certainly there would be no joyous choruses after songs about God enacting judgment. Many of us find the topic of judgment uncomfortable, and even the people who are most comfortable with it don’t want to get caught gloating.
Yet the Hallelujah Chorus isn’t merely a gloating session. It’s about something different–justice.
In the modern West, we live in a culture that has institutionalized justice. Do unjust things happen from time to time? Sure. But in the ancient Middle East, justice was not institutionalized. When you went to the judge, you expected to hand him a bribe. We worry now because the poor can’t afford good lawyers; under the Law Code of Hammurabi, the poor suffered greater penalties and lesser protection because Hammurabi thought that was the right thing to do. Not an unfortunate accident–the right thing. And most people weren’t lucky enough to be judged by a law code. They suffered whatever the local authorities thought appropriate. Or whatever the local authorities chose to ignore.
In other words, unless you are wealthy and powerful, you are as unlikely to receive justice as you are to receive mercy. Mercy and justice are not opposites. Not in a culture like that. If you are a person who has been wronged, then for you, they are more like two sides of the same coin. A judge proves himself merciful by being just at all.
We often take justice for granted. Not everyone could–or can–afford to do so. We shouldn’t gloat, of course–that usually shows that we are selfishly caught up in our own personal agendas. But justice also isn’t a time when we are obliged to grimace and make unpleasant faces at anyone who happens to be around.
Justice is something to celebrate.