In January 1740 Artic weather descended on the country. Temperatures plummeted so low that ports and harbours were blocked by ice. Livestock died and food stocks perished. To make matters worse the cold snap was followed by a period of prolonged drought. The harvest that autumn was pitiful and people went hungry. The weather didn’t improve and in December the terrible Artic conditions returned. Not surprisingly the following year saw famine and disease. Urgent help was needed.
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
St James tells us that it isn’t what we say but what we do that most accurately reflects our faith. Back in the crisis of 1741 a tangible expression of faith took the form of raising funds and setting up relief schemes for the needy and the starving poor. But one very imaginative expression was to invite the famous composer George Frederic Handel to Dublin to give charity concerts. And so, it came about, that in response to the dire needs of the time, the first performance of one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, the Messiah, took place in Dublin on April 13, 1742.
Who isn’t moved by the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah? The feelings of joy you get from this exultant flourish of praise are second to none. No wonder people stand up for it. Handel pulls out all the stops: sound of trumpet, strings and pipes, resounding cymbals and every voice proclaim the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” By the end we are left no doubt that the Messiah “shall reign forever and ever!”
But then something unexpected happens. The excitement of joy gives way to stillness when the last strains of the final alleluia fade away. All sit down. The soprano stands up and the orchestra strings alone introduce the aria she sings, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” No fanfare of trumpets, no beating of timpani, not even another voice. Just the solo voice of the soprano proclaiming the core of our faith. “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in today’s gospel. The same question is asked of you and me.
It’s one thing to proclaim Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” when you’re in the chorus and everyone around you is singing jubilant alleluias, but when the music stops, the scores put away and the hall empties, and you’re left standing alone, what then do you sing? In the stillness let your song be “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” he, who for love for us “gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: [who] hid not His face from shame and spitting [and] was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
“But who do you say that I am?” At the end of the day our personal answer to that question is the only one that matters. Not what others think, believe, or say—but what you, what I, think, believe, and say about Jesus. And if you are lost for an answer then simply say “You are Jesus”, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.