Victory in Christ
“But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Corinthians 15:57, KJV)
Something that I realize many of you do not know about me is that I am a musician by training. Believe it or not, there was a time in my life where my whole world was classical music, listening to it, performing it, even composing it. Yes, at one time my name was almost synonymous with music, and anyone who knew me would be hard pressed to be able to imagine one without the other.
Obviously, for my life’s work I chose a different path, led by God’s calling. I do not regret that choice at all. However, over the years, somewhere in between the clergy seminars, committee meetings, office work, sermon preparation and visitation schedules, what was once a presumptive career pursuit of mine has gradually taken a back seat to the rest of my clerical responsibilities and has become an avid – albeit passionate – but nonetheless amateur hobby.
From my formative years as a music lover, I amassed a large collection of sheet music – all the greatest classical works from masters like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner. Whether scored for piano, orchestra, voice or any instruments you can think of, I am in possession of dozens of such musical scores, which I like to pull out and study – in alphabetical order by composer or publisher – when I finally get a little time to myself. If there is a great classical masterwork to be had, you can bet I have it.
Well, it just so happened that at the beginning of last week I had arrived at a perennial favorite sitting on the shelf in my dedicated musical bookcase. It was the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frederick Handel. One of the best-known, most beloved musical works in all western literature, Messiah, which takes as its subject Jesus Christ, the prophecy of his incarnation, the saving work he accomplished on earth and the promise of his second coming and the Kingdom of God with him, occupies a special place in the hearts of countless music lovers and people of faith throughout the whole world down through the generations. In my experience, even those who are relatively musically unversed will have had some exposure to or familiarity with Handel’s Messiah, either as a whole or at the very least, its most famous section, the Hallelujah Chorus. When you think of it, really, there is probably scarcely a person alive who is not familiar with that infamous four-note theme at its opening!
And so there I found myself one night last week, curled up with my trusty full score of Handel’s Messiah, listening and following along with one of my favorite pieces of music.
As I listened to Part III of the oratorio, I marveled at how Handel (with the help of librettist Charles Jennens) magnificently captured the wonder and amazement of Christ’s resurrection and the hope of all mankind to one day be raised with him in glory and immortality. His text is drawn from the 15th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians; he goes through all the important lines and concepts: Christ is risen from the dead (verse 20), death through Adam and life through Christ (verse 22), the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised (verse52), death and the grave have no victory over us (verse 55) and, finally, the victory we have over death through Jesus Christ (verse 57).
Sadly, this is not a very popular selection, comparatively speaking, as some of the more well-known ones, and is often omitted in performance (during my career as a choral singer I had the privilege of singing “Messiah” twice and never once got to sing this particular section). Yet, as I was listening to the penultimate chorus with the singers repeating the words “But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it suddenly dawned on me that what I was listening to was the central message of Christ’s resurrection: God gave Jesus victory over death so that we too would have victory over death! What a simple and beautiful gift! Is it any wonder why Paul the Apostle (and Handel!) makes sure to thank him for it?
Indeed, the resurrection of Christ should be seen as God’s greatest gift to humanity, because it not only showed the power and grace of God, but also gave mankind a new hope of finally living to see the life it has yearned for ever since being expelled from the presence of God in the paradise of Eden – that is, a life free from the corruption of sin and evil… a blessed life, a real life in which we are restored to a continuous, meaningful relationship with God and one which does not end with death but extends into eternity.
Now, like any other gift, right or privilege we have, we should remember that those things must be secured and their preservation fought for. Make no mistake, the word “victory” is in its truest sense applicable here, considering Christ’s resurrection was truly a victory of life over death, good over evil, God over Satan, renewal over decay. And it was fought for ferociously, by a single man waging uncompromised battle, obedient to the will of his heavenly Father, stopping at nothing to make his way up to the cross and ultimately sacrificing his life in order that this victory might be secured for us mortals, who because of our sin faced very bleak prospects of ever being saved from eternal condemnation. We have a lot to be thankful for.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promised resurrection of all mankind serve as reminders of God’s faithfulness and his unsurpassed love and compassion toward his creation. St. Paul’s expression follows along the lines of a well-documented biblical rhetorical device, one that is both straightforward and exists in a myriad examples in both the Old and New Testaments. It exists in two steps: 1) identify what great thing God has done for us, and 2) thank him for it. God has given us victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ; thanks be to him. Amen.
Christ is risen from among the dead. Blessed is the resurrection of Christ.
Fr. Stephan Baljian, Pastor
Holy Pascha 2017