Written by Leslie Vander Griend
Read these phrases out loud:
“For unto us a Child is born.”
“I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
You may recognize these verses, if not from the King James Bible, then from the music of “The Messiah” – an oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frederick Handel. Handel’s Messiah was written in the English language, despite Handel himself being a native German speaker. All languages have nuances difficult to comprehend if you are not a native speaker of the language. For example, speakers of English don’t say, “the red big truck.” And we don’t typically land hard on “FOR” in “For unto us a child is born.” But Handel puts all the emphasis on “FOR” – it is the longest note and lands on the first beat of a measure – the strongest beat. Some singers even refer to this as the Golf Song: “FORE!” Unto us a child is born!”
The famous German composer was writing music attached to an English libretto comprised of English Bible verses, for audiences in Dublin and London. Because English was not Handel’s first language, he focuses our attention on “FOR” rather than “US” in the chorus about the birth of Jesus, and he focuses on “KNOW” in the verse about the resurrection. Although not typical English phrasing, I appreciate the theological emphasis – in this song it is all about the gift FOR our benefit – not just to us, not by us, not just any child, not just any birth, but an entire event planned down to the last detail FOR us.
That the Christ Child was born FOR us is Handel’s emphasis on the Giver more than the recipient of the gift.
Similarly, you could also say that the chorus: “I know that my Redeemer liveth” – with its peculiar emphasis on the word KNOW (again the longest note on the strongest beat) is Handel’s way of focusing the listener on the conviction we as Christians share in the truth of the resurrection. It’s not just that Christ arose; it matters that we can be sure of it. By these choruses, we are presented with a slightly different view of the gospel message – a native German speaker’s view.
Last weekend I watched the annual “Sacred Sounds of Christmas” concert from Seattle Pacific University. The virtual event offered much more than the traditional, formal lessons and carols. The concert included music from jazz to a formal choir singing outdoors to bassists plucking a tune for the Fremont troll. And the hip hop artist Phillip Jacobs, aka Sharp Skills, composed and performed a verse of “Oh Holy Night.” Although I have never listened to hip hop nor learned to appreciate it, the lyrics stopped me in my tracks:
Into the dark night light has penetrated
fulfilling the plan of the Most High ’til the name of Yeshua is venerated.
Oh death, your days are numbered,
The Sword of the Spirit lay in a manger slumber.
It was prophesied — that God would rise — to monopolize
I AM’s prodigal children now authorized — to beam the Kingdom of Heaven
–demons forget it.
Earthly kingdoms fall while the Son of Man raises kings in the desert,
Revolutionary love that even thieves could receive the message.
We lay our crowns at your feet,
Finally we see perfection.
Because of Sharp Skills’ particular language of expression, we see the gospel in new ways, with different emphasis. Stripped of the usual sparkle and formality of western carols, the truth of the gospel bleeds through the tapestry.
Sometimes I hear questions about diversity that boil down to something like: “Why does diversity matter? Why must (fill in the blank – our worship music, our school, our neighborhood, our church) need to reflect the diversity of God’s church worldwide?” The answer lies in Handel’s Messiah and Sharp Skills’ hip hop Christmas verse: diversity is the means by which we hear and experience the gospel more fully, from a perspective other than our own. Because we are then able to hold more than one view in our mind’s eye, we are just a dash closer to God’s perspective. Any diversity that leads us to see the gospel more clearly is essential to the kingdom because it is essential to the working out of our salvation.
This Christmas week, I encourage you to consider listening to Sharp Skills’ composition in context: