I have delighted for a long time in Handel's Messiah (HWV 56). One of my favorite versions is that by the Academy of Ancient Music and choir of King's College Cambridge, 2009. After the Overture, Handel leads us to "Comfort ye my people." The solo tenor voice repeats the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned."
This week the music has taken on a different meaning. The Holy City of Jerusalem has a renewed world focus, as US President Trump has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, putting the US out of step with the rest of the world. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem has had special status, recognizing that the world's three monotheistic religions see the city in a special light, all claiming Jerusalem as a spiritual home, and recognizing that such a special place belongs to all. Politically, both Israelis and Palestinians lay claim to Jerusalem as a state capital, the city partitioned in much the way that Berlin was in the Cold War. The balance has been delicate. The President's proclamation will certainly upset the balance, pushing the fragile peace in the Middle East toward further violence and upset.
The decision has already laid bare divisions among Jews and Christians. Evangelical Christians who view the Bible literally are ecstatic (CNN's word) that President Trump has fulfilled prophecy (I assume the very words I'm listening to in Handel's Messiah).
For me it raises the troubling issue of loading ancient religious texts in ways too heavy for them to bear. The trouble with literalism is that the literal reading is always selective, cherry picking the bits that fit and conveniently ignoring the bits that don't. Literalism invariably leads to inconsistencies and plain silliness. That's fine if you want to read the Bible that way. Who am I to judge? However, political pronouncements and policies enacted on the back of biblical literalism are deeply troubling. Ironically, such the marriage of religion and realpolitik might well lead us toward Armageddon, as an awful self-fulfilling prophecy. At the very least many people will likely be hurt, hopes and dreams and lives destroyed by the continuing foolishness of powerful people.
So my listening to Handel this Advent is not the unmixed blessing that it usually is. The familiar cadence "Comfort ye my people" has a new poignancy, sadness, and urgency. As the world watches my hope is that compassion and good sense will prevail for all who live in Jerusalem and its environs, and for all who look spiritually to "Jerusalem" as the trope of a better world.
Much love to all,