Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Malachi 3:1-5) transports me to Dublin, Ireland during the spring thaw of 1742, after the longest period of extreme cold in European history. The Great Frost had taken the lives of over a quarter million people. As the weather warmed, a crowd of grieving people gathered in a music hall on Fishamble Street to hear 26 boys and 5 men from the combined choirs of St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedral debut a new oratorio from George Frideric Handel. Early in the oratorio, the audience would hear the booming bass voice asking Malachi’s question from today’s text – But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire. And they would hear the chorus respond, And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for that congregation comprised largely of widows and widowers and orphans to hear Handel’s Messiah for the very first time. It’s speaks to me that Handel chose the stricken city of Dublin as the place to premiere his greatest work, right after the dreadful “year of the slaughter,” and that revenue from the concert went to local hospitals for the mentally ill. And it speaks to me that he directed several performances at the Foundling Hospital in London, where deserted and disadvantaged children received care. We are accustomed to hearing Handel’s Messiah performed in large sanctuaries and concert halls, generally during the Advent Season when the halls are decked with boughs of holly and we are sporting our colorful Christmas sweaters over belly-fulls of ginger cookies and egg nog in eager anticipation of the celebration of the Messiah’s birth.
But the bass soloist reminds us that the coming Messiah may not be something to eagerly await. Who can abide it? Who can endure it? The Messiah will come in the role of a silversmith firing up the forge and a washer woman laying the lye soap to the scrub brush, to purify and cleanse a religious leadership tarnished by many impurities. Malachi’s list of impurities interests me in its balance of conservative and liberal perspectives on the flaws of humanity. Speaking to the personal sins of the people, the prophet denounces sorcery, adultery, and dishonesty. Speaking to the social injustices of the community, the prophet passes judgment on exploitive labor practices, oppression of widows and orphans, and harsh treatment of immigrants. The “full gospel” as preached by Malachi and hinted at by Handel is one that addresses both sides of the ideological divide. The prophetic messenger envisions a beloved community where individuals don’t get captivated by destructive spirits, are faithful to their families, and are honest in their conversation, a community where the workers receive a living wage, where widows and orphans receive quality health care and security, and where we are not alien-ated from the immigrants who cross the borders to seek a better life in our land.
The booming bass reminds us, too, that getting to this pure form of community is not easy going. Having the tarnish of individual and social flaws removed from our system is not something to anticipate with merriment. It’s a painful process, one that inspires as much dread as hope, if we’re really honest about it. Two hundred and fifty years after Dubliners first heard the Messiah, a local band from the streets of Dublin sings of the pain of the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap at a concert in Croke Park Stadium – love is not the easy thing. . . I know it aches and your heart it breaks. . . you’ve got to leave it behind. I think Bono gets it. But oddly enough, he continues to hope anyway, like Handel, to walk on, like the orphaned children and war widows and hungry immigrants and many others in the world who have endured some version of a great frost.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.