“He was despised, rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah, 53:3)
These words are at the heart of one of British culture’s most central works, the “Messiah”, written some 300 years ago by the German composer Handel. Radio 4’s Today programme featured a piece on the “Messiah” this morning, which took me back to times I’ve heard it, and even sung parts in a choir myself. Although I’m not a Christian, by either birth or choice, I was deeply moved by these words today, on Good Friday, the traditional day of Christ’s crucifixion. I encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to it yourself.
Every religion has its particular quality, its gift to the world and, whatever else it has done for good or ill, Christianity is about this moment: Christ on the cross, God suffering.
We have all felt “despised, rejected of men”. We could all speak of ourselves as a man, or woman, or sorrows. We are all, very much, acquainted with grief. In that hour of despair, fear and grief, we feel ourselves to be not only suffering, but also utterly alone, friendless, hated, despised. Whatever it is that we hold sacred and precious, we are in that moment so estranged from it, so vile and abject, that it would be accurate to say, this is hell.
Here, in beautiful and heartbreaking music, we learn that Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the divine on earth, suffered just as we do. He cried out on the cross to God, “why have you forsaken me?”
This is the essential point of this myth: He was not pretending to suffer, and nor do we.
The truth is that, in the words of the novelist Saul Bellow, “there is a darkness”. And that’s why Christ is important – if he is – not as an image of cosy kindness, but of utter lostness, rejection, abandonment. Only if God’s grace can encompass the very worst, can we – or should we – believe in it. No healing, or salvation, that bypasses the depths of the pit of shame is worth consideration.
All that is left to us in the deepest terror is, perhaps, beauty. And that is why a piece of music such as this is necessary. It offers a consolation – the only genuine consolation that there can be – that when we come to the worst, we are not alone.