“For Unto Us, a Child Is Born”: Handel’s “Messiah” Universalized

It’s a by now familiar state of, if not  bliss, then at least deep contentment: listening to “Messiah,” first performed 280 years ago and ever since performed by one orchestra and choral group or another around the world whose members raise their voices to the celestial vision George Frideric Handel was setting to music from the words of the King James Bible as rendered by his librettist and friend Charles Jennens.

I’ve heard the work live probably 10 times, sung along with it (gamely!) several more when performances presented that option to audience members, and listened/sung with recordings countless more.

And so it was again earlier this month at the annual kickoff to the Christmas season at Duke University Chapel.

So identified with the oratorio is Handel that his last name is attached to the work almost inseparably in every performance or recording you’ll ever come across—never just the official “Messiah” alone but “Handel’s Messiah.”

More importantly, it’s a reminder of the sheer wonder and tenderness elicited by every child’s birth, reaching deeply within every beating human heart.

It’s a soaring and splendid work, beautiful in its sheer musicality, so much so that I venture to say a good portion of any listening audience isn’t there because the work reaffirms any strong, traditional religious beliefs that attendees may hold, but because it appeals to them aesthetically and aspirationally, as great music wrapped around a symbol of goodness, hope, innocence, and abiding human connection.

The challenge for those outside the Christian tradition is that “Messiah” does speak from a Christian frame, does declare that “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” because of a particular figure’s birth in historical time, does state that “He Shall Purify” the “sons of Levi.” 

Then about halfway through the first of three parts, we come to “For Unto Us, a Child Is Born.” It’s a gorgeous invitation (more like an invasion, really…) for us in the audience to have it imprinted upon that part of our brains where particular bits of music lodge to graze for the rest of our lives.

More importantly, it’s a reminder of the sheer wonder and tenderness elicited by every child’s birth, reaching deeply within every beating human heart.

But then it goes on to assert:

“And the government shall be on His shoulder…
And His name shall be called
The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father
The Prince of Peace”

A newborn child carrying every government on his shoulder, a child who is ostensibly one and the same with…Mighty God, the everlasting father and very creator of the universe?

I don’t know about you, but when I’m not lustily singing or bathing in those words from the pews at a “Messiah” performance, I don’t much identify with them. At least not in a literal sense of that particular child born in that manger at that time being a savior of the world.

Should that be a problem at all for me?



But before getting to that, let’s give a listen:



Don’t worry—this will not be a long theological treatise. Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, et al—along with all the music and other arts inspired by them—are not occasions for arguing the merits of arcane theological points. Nor for probing the deeper, archetypal ramifications and contradictions of any religious expression.

They are instead invitations to our own best impulses of celebration and generosity, to our most wide-angled and open recognition of the universal elements that the arts in particular make so compelling in expressing the depth dimension of human life and its varied expressions in particular religious traditions.

For all the ballyhoo swirling around the concept of “cultural appropriation,” I view my happy and appreciative immersion in “Messiah” as an honoring of the Christian tradition despite not belonging to it, just as when in India a few years ago I participated in various devout Hindu ceremonies to which my hosts invited me in the great pride and warmth that they did.

A few years ago my own Unitarian Universalist minister and I found ourselves addressing the question of whether, in sum, religion has caused more good or evil in the world, given the long-running, abysmal history of sordidness that has accompanied the demonstrable good it has also brought to bear.

We wound up agreeing that religion probably has done more good than not, but perhaps at something like a 50.1% to 49.9% edge. Reflecting, it seems, most all human institutions run by, lo and behold, human beings whose better angels (metaphorically speaking here) are themselves often in conflict with their demons, as they are with the angels and demons of others.

Tangled, as it were—and oh so human…

But performances of “Handel’s Messiah,” like all such avowedly or even implicitly spiritual artistic expressions, speak resoundingly to that 50.1%, to the part of us capable of dropping all the pettiness, venality and worse that otherwise find ways to intrude on our lives.

“Messiah” and works like it reflect back to us our yearnings for all that is good, to our enduring capability of bathing in generosity and love, and for expressing the same to and about our fellow men and women. One touchstone among many in this dark season that—via the wonders of human imagination and creativity—always manages to bring forth such abundant light.


The coup de grace, I think you would call this, to a monumental work…Enjoy!


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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Painting by Lorenzo Lotto, “Adoration of the Shepherds,” photo by Jean Louis Mezieres, Paris, France https://www.flickr.com/photos/mazanto

Manger stock photo from the public domain

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