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By Sigrid Fowler
I watched a video of Handel’s Messiah–orchestra and soloists, several hundred members of the chorus, more in the audience. An Easter experience like that could inspire any number of observations. I’ve sung in one of these choirs and attended many Messiah performances, recently in Fort Worth when invited by a chorus member. One Messiah Singalong in Washington, D.C., is a cherished Christmas memory. The thing that struck me today as I watched the video was the simple fact of human cooperation, the multiplicity of talents, the combined efforts of hundreds. A grand pipe organ, itself an orchestra at the organist’s fingertips, supported the chorus and orchestra as the camera focused on various instruments—violins, violas, cellos, and bass viols; bassoons, oboes, and flutes; trumpets, French horns, and tympany; piano and harpsichord. The human voices in their hundreds, each unique, and soloists who added their individual style and range—contralto, soprano, tenor, baritone-bass—all contributed to a breathtaking and complex performance. This was the unforgettable impression: a shared experience, the joint effort of hundreds of musicians.
I was alone in my room watching the video, but the performance was attended by a large audience of which I was also, in a sense, a member. Somehow the word together seems to work best as a caption. This gathering involved individuals, each with a life story and particular human characteristics. But everyone was bent on doing one thing. All of us were immersing ourselves, whether producing or silently enjoying Handel’s glorious music. But this wasn’t all. As the performance progressed, I became interested in the expressions on faces in the chorus. They seemed to brightened with the high praise. Not surprisingly, the final applause went on and on. Afterward, I began to mull over questions about combined efforts, the kinds of events that draw crowds, and what it means to share an experience—the mutuality, causes, and purpose. An audience was captured in the video of this event, but hundreds of musicians were also involved in making the whole thing happen, a lot of people!
Crowds of human beings can be very different from a Messiah concert—mobs, wars, the choreographed torch parades of Nazi Germany, crowds that gather out of curiosity at scenes of disaster. There’s not much positive in any of that. The Bible talks about gathered throngs in a different way. There are many evocative passages about humans gathering together. Studied side by side, three of my favorites seem instructive.
The first passage I’m thinking of is in Genesis. Jacob has come to the end of his life, he prophesies over his twelve sons, here to Judah: “He couches, he lies down as a lion, / And as a lion, who dares rouse him up?/ The scepter shall not depart from Judah / Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet / Until Shiloh comes / And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen 49: 9b-10). Several translators prefer, “to him shall be the gathering of the peoples.” The word Shiloh is a messianic reference. Millennia later, when Caiaphas as chief priest prophesies that “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people” (John 11: 51), John explains, “not for the nation only, but that he [the Messiah] might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11: 52). Finally, Paul writes the Christians of Thessalonica: “Now we request you, brothers and sisters, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess 2: 1).
The beckoning and focus, the reason for these gatherings, is the Lord. This Easter Sunday, in the first packed-out sanctuary in many months and later as I experienced that gathering for the Messiah performance, I felt the impact of what people mean when they talk about corporate worship. The writer of Hebrews tells us not to “neglect our assembling together” (Heb 10: 25). One benefit of a pandemic may be to make us appreciate what we haven’t had—worship with large numbers of other believers gathered together to the Lord.