Every year since 1958 I’ve played, sung or conducted Handel’s Messiah. One of my pet peeves is that Messiah, originally an Easter work, featuring a lot of “pain and spitting”, death and subsequent resurrection, has been reduced in America to its introductory section telling the pretty little Christmas story. Tack on the Hallelujah chorus and the Amen, and you’ve got a dumbed-down normal presentation, the Hallelujah halleluja-ing not the resurrection of Christ, but the birth of Jesus.
There actually was a community Messiah performance at Los Alamos one Christmas. Folks wrote about it in diaries — so that much of my tale is “true”. I did want to try writing a variation on Father Mapple’s sermon (why not?), and so introduced a character to do the harangue (it would have been appropriate, no?), who has now disappeared from the book along with his chapter and Messiah. Here’s what got traded off for Stravinsky.
AND WITH HIS STRIPES WE ARE HEALED
Outside, across the great waters, there was the great war. But inside, behind the barbed wire, there were the little wars.
Like the war between Teller and Bethe over who should really be head of the Theoretical Division. Or the war between Neddermeyer and Parsons over how implosion work should proceed. Kistiakowsky once told me that when he reads books on Los Alamos “everything looks so simple, so easy, and everybody was friends with everybody,” but that certainly didn’t jibe with his recollections. Nor mine. When you put a lot of original, outstanding, competitive people together you can count on friction increasing proportionately.
Internecine strife among the elite was not the worst of it. As any sociologist could easily have predicted there was frank alienation, and subtle class war, between the “men” of the military, and civilian “eggheads” -- the scientists and their families.
Enlisted and drafted GIs, men who had hoped to “fight Nazis” or “kill Japs”, found themselves cutting wood, collecting garbage, fixing plumbing, selling soda, cigs and stamps, checking groceries and cashing checks for civilians who seemed to be “slumming it,” enjoying life at a rustic camp at taxpayer expense, people who whenever they wanted could return to their ivory-covered universities. Who knew who they were or what they were up to? “Slackers”, they were called in private, “phonies”, “tech-area jerks”, “longhairs”. Men, women and children! Many of these GIs had had to leave families and loved ones behind, and now suffered without visits, without phone calls, with censored mail. Worst of all, the incendiary rumor prevailed that the Army was not about to “waste good men on this project”, men who “could be out there winning the war.” Consequently, the MPs guarding the gates and checking passes were often less than friendly; the scientists didn’t know if they were being protected or imprisoned. As a recent government publication laconically put it, “Considerable hostility developed between the Tech Area civilian workers and the military workers in the Post Administration...and a considerable portion of the business was done at arm’s length.”
Things grew even worse with the arrival of the SEDs. In addition to the regular Corps of Engineers who ran the Post, a Special Engineering Detachment was sent up to work in the Tech Area, a unit of drafted physics and engineering students -- some of them with PhDs. Although the Army had failed to get the senior scientists into uniform, it did try to militarize the SEDs. But these boys were quite different from regular Post soldiers. In spite of their uniforms, they looked -- and acted -- more like baby professors than combat troops.
I remember a hilarious incident -- at least some of us thought it was hilarious -- shortly after the SEDs came up the Hill: a formal military review had been scheduled in the field between the Lodge and the Big House, the single men’s dormitory. For us, it was just a festive Sunday afternoon parade, but for Groves it was important enough to invite high brass from Washington to come inspect. The whole scientific community came with dogs and children to see the show. The MPs, the Post soldiers, the WACs, and even the military doctors looked smart as they marched across the field, but the SED boys were awful. Their lines were crooked, they couldn’t keep in step, they grinned, waved and shouted at friends on the sidelines. And the situation was not helped by the fact that they received the loudest applause from the bleachers. Our soldierly visitors were not very pleased; one general even called it a disgrace to the army. Nevertheless, these young scientist/scoffers had all been classified as non-commissioned officers. Many were completely without basic training. And yet they outranked the hard-working GIs, ordering them around, and playfully expecting salutes. Worse yet, civilian scientists trying “to counteract the military regime”, became invested and pushy about SED promotions, an infringement on military prerogative which was not too gracefully accepted. Civilians vs. military was one level of struggle. Civilians, military and SEDs upped the ante to a three-body problem which was too complex to be solved without divine intervention.
Enter Jesus Christ, potential Redeemer! The military and civilian directors, aware of growing tension, came up with a scheme to harness the Christmas energy of Peace-on-Earth-Goodwill-towards-Men to solve, or at least ameliorate, the problem. Little did Groves or Oppie know what forces would be released.
The Mesa Chorus, led by Donald (Moll) Flanders, would present it’s first annual performance of Handel’s Messiah at 7PM, Saturday, December 18th, at Fuller Lodge. Because the GIs, by and large, preferred to spend their Saturday nights in the more alcoholic setting of the PX, attendance would be required, but the odium of enforcement would be diluted by a free, fancy meal at the Lodge beforehand, and free drinks and dancing afterward. Only the middle portion of the choral work would be given, a section semi-flirting with interesting soldierly gore, and hopefully short enough to hold the attention of any whose musical stamina was shaped by the three minute surges of the top ten. Moreover, one of their own, Rudi Schildknapp, lead trumpet of the Schildknapp Six, would be employed at a critical moment to blast out a crackling downscale of heavenly trumpets. As Rudi improvised exclusively, half the audience was hoping he would get it right and not embarrass them, while the other half was rooting for him to take off and show the longhairs what one of them could really do.
The plan, of course, was to get the soldiers there, even if coerced, to have them mix with the scientist civilians over a good meal, to have them all enjoy, or at least tolerate a piece of music which had proven ever-popular, at least among the choral music set, and then to top off the new bonds of friendship and experience with easy-going, hopefully incident-less physical contact of social dancing -- with Groves playing the familiar role of cultural despot and censor in the less familiar guise of DJ. Could anything but greater harmony result?
How long was the concert? Groves wanted to know. Oh, about forty minutes, Moll assured him. Fine, said the General. Then there’ll be time for a little Christmas-y talk afterwards, just so they’ll get the picture, and not go out drunk after civilian’ wives. And the Nobel Prizewinners might also be moved to a little charity for their inferior fellow humans. I’ll ask the chaplain to say a few words, will that be all right? Sure, said Moll.
Gregor was excited. He loved Messiah. It was nothing a Jewish boy in Prague had been expected to love, but it was nothing any boy in Prague could miss. As a child, it had seemed to him that each April, every church in Staré Mesto had entered some frenzied Messiah competition. Until he was fifteen, he had steered clear of this goyish mania. But one day, a lovely young girl with long, dark hair handed him a leaflet for a performance at four PM, in five minutes, right there, right at St. Mikulás, right around the corner from his house. She looked very Jewish, this one. Maybe she sang in the chorus. It must be all right for a Jew to go into a church, if it’s for a concert. His parents would not be home until six. They’d never know.
Gregor was ravished by the experience. He used the word in every possible meaning: he was seized and violently done to; he was overcome by horror, joy and delight; he was pre-sexually bewitched, for the long-haired one was in fact singing soprano in the front row, and never had such an angelic voice issued from such sensuous purity. This concert, too, was of the Easter portion of the work, and from “Behold the Lamb of God” to the last “Hallelujah”, he was transfixed with wonder. Jews didn’t make this kind of sound in their churches. Synagogues were filled with the discordant rumble of davvenning, each worshipper finding his individual prayer voice and rhythm, chanting, whispering, singing, crying, repeating phrases over and over, lost in the brumming of the crowd. Sometimes a cantor sang. But this -- this! Could it be his Jewish faith was shaken? Unspeakable. It is music, music that hath ravished me! He got home before the rest of his family, and never mentioned his experience, even to his sister Grete, a budding violinist.
He had tried to hear Messiah every year since then, but with all the changes that had occurred along the way, he had managed to bat only about .300. So what a boon -- right here, in his own community, an annual Messiah! The sad part was that he could no longer sing it, as he had in his late teens and early twenties, in the face of his father’s rage. Not that his father was an observant Jew -- it was strictly High Holidays with him, and whatever social practice was necessary to maximize profits. But for some reason, the idea of his very own son singing -- singing! -- about Christ, advertising a false messiah -- the faintest whiff of this image sent him into catastrophic fury. In fact, one of these seizures, the most terrifying one in Gregor’s memory, had been on the very night before Gregor’s change. He hadn’t made the connection. But still, not to be able to sing this, to be kept from pouring his heart into the clean and glorious lines...Metamorphosis had many boons, but being unable to sing Messiah was not one of them. His voice was too scratchy.
Gregor came early, picked up a program, and sat down in the front row. The tables had been pushed back, and the room was filled with dinner and folding chairs, even on the balcony. As he read through the program, people slowly filtered into the room, some in suits and dresses, many more in uniform. The growing rumble reminded him of davvening.
“Behold the Lamb of God”, ok. Hey, where is “He was despised” and “He gave his back?”...must not have an alto soloist. (For the first time in ages, Gregor grew aware of his own back, and the smiting by his father. ) Surely...”And with his stripes”...”All we like sheep”, good, good. What? Genia Peierls is the tenor soloist? She sings “All they that see him?” Easy, G, take it easy. “He trusted in God”, ok, and at least we get “Thy rebuke”, even if it is with Genia... “Lift up your heads?” What? Where’s the death? Where’s “He was cut off out of the land of the living?” How can they skip that? If she can sing the other tenor solos, why not that?
Gregor thought he had better give up reading the program, so he could listen with a receptive heart. They would do what they would do.
Choosing to do the Easter portion of Messiah for Christmas had been a trans-Atlantic compromise. Though written as an Easter piece, and traditionally performed in Europe during Easter time, in coming to America Messiah had shifted seasons, and along with them, content. Though the Puritans had banned the celebration of Christmas, post-Puritan America has embraced it with a vengeance, currently exhorting all to worship at the mall of one’s choice. Perhaps in the land of the Easter Bunny and the electric chair, crucifixion is seen as barbaric, but Christmas, not Easter, is where most American celebration is concentrated, and with it, most concertizing. Messiah has become a Christmas piece, and most American performances restrict themselves to its first section concerning Advent and the birth of Christ. For some reason completely incomprehensible to Europeans, the meat of the oratorio is left out, and the introductory portion is capped with the Hallelujah chorus -- a masterwork written to praise Christ’s ascent to his heavenly throne. “A premature ejaculation at best,” commented Hans Staub, concerning this practice.
But if this was their country, and the Americans were determined to put on part of
Messiah at Christmas, the new influx of Europeans were going to be damn sure it was the Easter portion that was performed.
The piano in Fuller Lodge was, appropriately, a living example of both the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and Neils Bohr’s -- excuse me, Nicholas Baker’s -- Principle of Complementarity. You were never quite certain what the pitches were because you could not have accurate tuning of two or three of the multiple strings at the same time. If one was in, the others were surely out. Then too, the instrument existed in some duple state averaged between Hammerklavier and Harpsdischord, as Joyce was pleased to call it, a soft touch bringing out the clinging, plucking quality of frayed felt, while a strong attack manifested the sound of bare wood core on metal. You could never elicit the two at the same time, and a complete description of the instrument would have to include aspects of both. Otto Frisch, an excellent Mozart pianist, was quite the sport to agree to play on it. But no one was about to move Teller’s Steinway grand over through snow and frozen mud for a forty minute performance at the Lodge. Besides, such accompaningt sounds took the burden off the chorus to sing in tune. No one would think of blaming Frisch, and no one could really indict the singers.
At 7:20 the chorus entered a restless hall to great applause, and the full-bearded Moll Flanders, computation leader in the Theoretical division and thus Dick Feynman’s boss, dressed in unwonted, too large tailcoat and white tie made his way to the front. Even the GIs whistled and stomped. Moll had permanently endeared himself to the whole community with a show he had put on in the early fall: “The Moll Flanders Ballet Workshop [the poster said] presents the premier of an original ballet -- ‘Sacre du Mesa’ -- to the futuristic music of George Gershwin.” Everyone in his company had had ballet training except him. But he pointed out with impeccable logic, that in order to dance General Groves, [Groves was in Washington], he didn’t need ballet training, since the General himself had had none. QED. Tonight he would surpass that feat.
The “house lights” went down, and in the first of only two wrong decisions that evening, he broke the suspense with two mere announcements: The concert was beginning at 7:20 because, as the contemporary world has amply demonstrated, the Messiah always comes late. The audience simply took this in, confounded. Also the chorus All we like sheep had to be scrapped at the last minute because too many had gone astray and the shepherd was still out looking for them. Chuckles from the cognoscenti. He signaled to Otto, and the Overture began, grave, perhaps more striking than usual for being in an indeterminate key. Then, a truly extraordinary event occurred. When the moment came for the Allegro moderato to begin, Moll walked over to stand at the side of the upright piano, placed his elbow on top, and performed that three-part fugue all by himself. He whistled the soprano voice out of the right side of his mouth, the alto out of the left, and vocalized the bass part with accurate, wordless humming. You don’t believe me. I was there. I am not a gullible man. I heard it with my own ears. He must have been practicing this in the shower for the last twenty years in preparation for that night.
Now Messiah is one of the grandest works of western culture. It is simply not appropriate for a serious conductor to whistle the overture in public performance. But the effect, rather than being ridiculous, was to create a lodgefull of gaping at the wonder that is man. No problem was too great for one who set his mind to it, no achievement too difficult. The Fuller Lodge was riddled with people who had dedicated themselves to excellence: none could gainsay Moll Flanders’ accomplishment.
The music jumped from E minor to G minor, an artifactual glitch of abridgement, noticeable to few in the audience since “Behold the lamb of God” had caught them up, every last one of them it seemed, in its net of falling lines. Were there some there who had never heard the Messiah before? What were they expecting? Something churchy? That is not what they got. Rather they were bathed in an ominous summoning to pain and passion, set in a post-whistling context which included even them, the sinful of the world. Those who knew recognized the voice of John, the same voice that cried in the wilderness, “Comfort ye, my people.” The Lamb was about to be chosen, the Passover Lamb, the sacrifice upon whom all sins would be heaped and slaughtered into renewal, the Lamb whose blood would be smeared on door jambs to frighten Death away, the Lamb that would conquer the wolves, the conquering Lamb.
What about this Lamb? Handel took great pains to describe its scorn-filled whipping. “He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that pluckèd off the hair.” Blood and hair clotting together on the prison floor. Here is perhaps the only major artwork which celebrates saliva as such: “He hid not his face from shame and spitting,” spit in the face, a cadence, ach-ptoo! But without an alto soloist, the audience was cheated of secretions. Instead they were assured, in no uncertain terms, that the Lamb was burdened with their very own doings: Surely he hath born our griefs, and carried our sorrows. The fierce F-minor cries, the painful, discordant suspensions: He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities, a catharsis of pity and terror.
Even the Jewish and Italian mothers of many in the audience would not have been able to evoke such a sense of guilt. The thoughtful were carried emotionally along, while at the same time wondering about the phenomenon of the Messiah. Is this suffering quadruped the Saviour of the world? How odd. The Messiah’s function is to be victorious. Christians thought of Christ. Jews thought through their own lens of the “true” reference, the continued oppression and persecution of Israel throughout the Christian and pre-Christian centuries. The currrent Nazi attacks, the pogroms of the nineteenth century which had brought their parents to the New World, the persecutions of the eighteenth century, the seventeenth, and on back to the Exile, where the image of the Lamb converges with that of scattered Israel.
“And with His stripes we are healed.” What is that about? Why should one’s agony be inversely proportional to another’s? Conservation of Wound? Conservation of Tears? Conservation of Pain? Beckett has told us: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”
Handel lingers over the word “healed” as if to lay soothing balm upon Christ’s -- and our -- wounds. Yet at this very moment, G’s wound began to weep. As he searched his soul for cause, he heard someone in the soprano section, he couldn’t tell who, articulating the melismatic syllables of “healed” as “hee-hee-hee-hee-heeled”, in effect a subtle but demonic, underlying cackling, as if to say that no matter what the unction, the wound is too great to be cured -- you’ll see. Hee-hee-hee.
And now, skipping over the strayed “All we like sheep”, Genia Peierls stepped out in front of her row to sing “All they that see him, laugh him to scorn. They shoot out their lips and shake their heads, saying”: Enter the scornful.
Genia, the Russian wife of the emigré German theoretician, Rudolf Peierls, and mother of the brilliant, beautiful, precocious Gabrielle, age 12 going on 40, had recently arrived with the British mission, and was already the most talked-about character on the mesa. No matter what the issue or activity, Genia was there, in the front row, taking things energetically in hand, running everything with ringing voice and Russian disregard of the definite article. The less generous, or more easily intimidated, spoke of her as a terror -- always telling other people what to do. In this instance, she had insisted in singing the tenor recitative preceding He trusted in God, because, as she forcefully observed, “How will audience know who speaks?!” And although she was right -- it was important to identify the excerpted voice of the chorus -- the transition did little to soften the brutal choral metamorphosis from a confessing people of God to an unruly crowd in obscene play at a public execution. So does Jekyll turn unexpectedly to Hyde.
He trusted in God that He would deliver him: let Him deliver him, if he delight in him. Such assertive contemptuousness! The trivializing, de-legitimizing of God, putting his capitalized pronoun on a syncopated weak beat, now ironically, self-flatteringly strong. What pristine nastiness, abundantly clear. Genia stepped forward again to sing Handel’s comment, justified only by her own: “Is very important!” Thy rebuke hath broken His heart. He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on him. But there was no man, neither found he any, to comfort him.
And surely she was right to do so. Not only was this Gregor’s favorite moment of
Messiah, with the single most touching note in music slipping into place in the piano’s middle voice, a pensive entwinement of suffering and beauty. In the pause after pity on him, a luminous E rises half step to a questioning, consoling F, as if at least one human heart might go out to Jesus from the frigid emptiness answering his gaze. But it was also the theological key to the work: Here was the heart of it. As every culture has known and proclaimed, something is wrong with the human race. Things are not as they should be. There have been many intellectual explanations -- mythological, religious, philosophical. But here is the psalmist’s prophetic assessment: the primal fault is that we disdain God. We have turnèd everyone in his own way. The biblical word for this is “sin.”
Gregor felt connected to Genia Peierls for the first time. Perhaps he sensed for a moment why she was the way she was. At the same time, he, in that moment of E to F, felt terribly, agonizingly lonely. And his wound, not so much stripe as crater, bled its brown tears.
The listeners had to interpolate the moment of death. But G found this not as egregious as he had expected. The whole textual strategy of the Messiah is one of brilliant, evocative avoidance. Charles Jennens, an otherwise unremarkable British gentleman, had provided his friend George Fredrick with a libretto of theological genius, portraying every shade of devotion from piety, resignation and repentance to hope, faith and exultation. And all this without resorting to narrative, as in the Passions of Bach: Christ did this, and then he did that, the misery composed directly into the music. Messiah commands attention because of what it does not show, for the most part indicating, rather than depicting events. And therefore the death of Jesus, that epoch-making moment, really could exist as a lacuna between his unrewarded search for comfort and the triumphant Lift up your heads which followed. Praise be to Moll and Genia for demonstrating this.
Lift up your heads; The Lord gave the word; Their sound is gone out. And so, for the Jews, the Ark takes its place in the Temple, for the Christians, the Son takes his place in Heaven, and the preachers tell the world -- but some do not hear. Why do the nations so furiously rage together? Jim Tuck, the gawky six foot comedian of the newly-arrived Brits, he of explosive lens research, stepped out to sing, less than accurately but with conviction, to sing of the kings of the earth, of the rulers that counsel together against the Lord. Again, the demonic chorus: Let us break any bonds with the Anointed, and cast away their yokes from us. And what will happen? This time Willy Higinbotham, a “real” tenor, stepped forward to describe the smashing and breaking that will ensue, an image which always reminded Gregor of the piled up debris confronting Benjamin’s Angel of History.
And then, the great moment, the moment incoherently misplaced in American versions, the great Hallelujah Chorus. The piling up of debris? Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth -- which at first blush is not a very encouraging vision of the future. But what if it were to become the case -- that the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and that over such a peaceable kingdom He shall reign forever and ever ? It did give one pause, in the midst of the battle of Stalingrad, the submarine warfare, and the maiden flight of the V2.
Two hundred two and a half years earlier, King George had stood in his excitement, dragging the court to its surprised feet around him, and now the European aficionados led the audience in Fuller Lodge in this traditional ninth inning stretch, though many of the GIs, worshippers in someone else’s church, didn’t quite know what was going on, and rose with quizzical expressions under their crew cuts. Fiercely cued by Moll, Rudi Schildknapp’s five trumpet notes came in right at measure 57, and though several of his cohorts applauded defiantly right then and there, they were shortly cut off by the impregnable momentum of the music.
For all the radiance of that performance, at that time, in that place, there was one moment that stood out above all others. Willie Higinbotham, with his strong tenor voice, came in too soon after the breathtaking pause just before the final cadence, shattering the dramatic silence in the Lodge. After the concert, Otto Frisch consoled him with congratulations. “I’ve heard Messiah perhaps thirty times in my life,” he said, “and I’ve always waited for someone to come in too soon. It was very satisfying to me.” The story even followed him to Washington where he went to lobby for civilian control of atomic energy late in ‘45. I heard it there several times in scientific and diplomatic circles.
In spite of George Bernard Shaw’s opinion alleging “the impossibility of obtaining justice for that work in a Christian country,” the night’s Messiah excerpt had been an exhausting forty-three minutes for Gregor. He leaned back against brown wetness -- to decompress. But before the audience could conclude the event was over, Chaplain Capt. Jonathan Maple walked onstage, making his way through the departing chorus members, who were taking places at the back of the hall. Chaplain Maple was a gaunt thirty-five, with a high forehead under short black hair accentuating his skull-like visage, his somber eyes magnified by thick, round glasses. He had recently arrived on the mesa, a permanent replacement for the guest ministers, rabbis and priests whose coming-and-going Groves felt might compromise security. He had an office in the Big House, and was available by appointment for consultation. This, however, was his first general public appearance, and even those who might otherwise have fled stayed around to assess this new member of the community. I had mentioned Moll Flanders’ two mistakes of the evening. This was the second.
Chaplain Maple began innocuously enough:
“I want to thank Dr. Flanders, Dr. Frisch, and the thirty-four members of the Mesa Chorus for their gift to us tonight.”
Audience applause for those at the back.
“But I also want to acknowledge the appearance of someone invisible -- more than someone -- three, four, perhaps a dozen invisibles whose voices have been haunting the evening. Can you think who they are?”
No answer from the room of thinkers and doers.
“I am referring, of course, to the psalmists and prophets who supplied Mr. Handel with his texts, and us with our spiritual itinerary.”
Some mumbling among the crowd. The one comment I clearly caught was, “Now we have to sit through a sermon?” Others seemed intrigued.
“Have ye not known? have ye not heard?
Hath it not been told you from the beginning?
Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth
And the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers...”
The quotation came out of the blue, entirely unprepared by the previous remarks. Furthermore, the Chaplain’s voice had taken on a new quality -- or was it the Chaplain’s voice at all? The closest approximation was the disembodied voice heard at all hours of the day and night over the Project PA system, but here shorn of its electronic quality. Perhaps it was a practiced ventriloquy used in his denomination. In any case, it seemed to come from the three sides of the balcony rather than from the speaker in front. Gregor, at first joining the audience in the search for the source, was drawn to attention by the characterization of “grasshoppers”. After a pause for the exotic voice to dissipate, Chaplain Maple continued.
“Those were the words of First Isaiah, the author of much of Handel’s text Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: I have nourished and brought up children and they have rebelled against me. Thus begins the first and greatest of the books of prophets: a testimony with visionary authority, proud genealogy, cosmic scope -- and an indictment of the rebellious children of the Lord.”
A few soldiers stood up to leave, but were signalled back down by imperative sergeants.
“I say ‘First Isaiah’. Do all of you know that the ‘Isaiah’ of the Old Testament is not one, but at least three different people, writing scores of years apart? [Silence.] I hope I am not shocking anyone. These are the words of the First Isaiah, who began to preach in the reign of King Uzziah, in the eighth century BC. First Isaiah was a visionary moralist, calling upon a country in the summit of its power. Uzziah had built the economic resources of Judah as well as its military strength. In Jerusalem there were engines, invented by skillful men, on each of the towers, capable of shooting arrows long distances, and heaving great stones.
But Uzziah’s strength had become his weakness. He grew proud, and angry at meddling priests, and as his anger mounted, leprosy broke out on his forehead. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper, he dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.
In the year that King Uzziah died, First Isaiah had a vision: he saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. Above the throne stood the seraphim, and each one had six wings; and with twain they covered God’s face, with twain they covered His feet, and with twain they did fly. Insect-like angels, shielding men from the radiation of God.”
Scientists and military brass took wary note. Radiation? The radiation of God? Did the Chaplain know something he shouldn’t? Gregor, tachycardic, again noted the insects.
“Those were years of power struggles and shifting strategic alliance. The huge kingdoms of Egypt and Mesopotamia, Babylon and Assyria, alternately triumphed, while tiny Judah played its cards as cleverly as it could, seeking protection without humiliation. First Isaiah lived through the reign of four Judaic kings, and he counseled each to rely not on military protection, but on God’s. History, he proclaimed, was a stage for God’s will and God’s work; the rising and falling of willful nations was mere detail.
The louder he spoke, the farther he was pushed from centers of power. So he let it be known that politics itself, with its arrogance and disregard of justice, was the problem -- not the solution. And why, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Children of all ages, why is that?
Because politics is based on the power of the sword. You know First Isaiah’s words: some of you have laughed at them. He announced the day when nations ‘shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.’ Are you still listening? First Isaiah proclaimed the day when ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’
It had become clear that this was to be no short, simple thank-you speech from the religion Division. Some in the audience became restless, some transfixed. The GIs knew they could not leave, and the civilians felt they could not abandon them.
“What were First Isaiah’s flight instructions from the Lord?” continued Maple. “Now hear this, friends:
‘Go and say to this people (this people is you):
Go and say to this people
Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.
Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears,
and turn and be healed.’
What? What could these instructions mean? Isaiah checked them twice. Prophets are normally charged with making people see and understand; they aim to mobilize their hearts, not put them to sleep.‘How long?’ Isaiah asked, appalled. ‘How long this tactic?’ God’s plan was uncomfortably clear:
‘Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate.’
Maple paused to let the thought sink in.
“It is hard to be a prophet,” he added. And again that voice from nowhere and from everywhere:
“‘Why is my pain unceasing,
My wound incurable,
Refusing to be healed?’
Gregor could not believe his ears.
“‘I cry by day, but you do not answer:
and by night, but find no rest.
I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others and despised by the people.’
Why, Isaiah, why? Could it be, my poor Isaiah, that only an outsider, only an exile, can claim the humanity society denies?
Gregor was breathing quickly.
“God’s plan was decimation; First Isaiah was assigned to cover the news. Reduce Israel to a remnant, and let things begin again. And the Jews were scattered, and their Temple destroyed.
But in the Exile, a prophet arose who lifted the meaning of the events from mere political history to a cosmic drama of world redemption. This was Second Isaiah, the poet responsible for chapters 40 through 55, for much of the Messiah text, a lyrical visionary of the heart. For Christians, Second Isaiah spoke the words that most clearly presage the coming of Christ. The historical, human order is to be overcome by the suffering servant, to Christian thought, the crucified Saviour.
It is not just a few thousand Jewish exiles to whom this prophet speaks, as they sit weeping by the waters of Babylon. Second Isaiah addresses every exile all over the world, every human at a loss to find God, every blind man trying passionately to penetrate the darkness of the future. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is you.
The root of the problem, indeed the root of all evil, is your false sense of sovereignty, and stemming from it, your pride, your arrogance, your presumption.
‘They worship the work of their own hands,’ the Prophet says, ‘that which their own fingers have made. They have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations.’
But the Lord is weary of such offerings. Where is contrition? Where is regret?
‘Bring no more vain oblations; your incense is an abomination unto Me.
When you spread forth your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood.’”
Things were becoming truly uncomfortable. This might have gone over in some small southern Baptist church, but this was the Fuller Lodge at Site Y. Chaplain Maple seemed to sense this, and pulled back.
“Let me say a few words about history. This is what the prophets discovered: History is a nightmare. We generally assume that politics, economics and warfare are the substance of history. To the prophets, it is God’s judgement of man which is the main issue. They look at history from the point of view of Justice, judging its course not in terms of wealth and success, victory and defeat, but in terms of corruption and righteousness, violence and compassion.
We should not expect the darkness of our history to be dispersed soon by any clever technical or political strategy. We will not receive answers concerning the future, because we ask questions of those who cannot know, the vain gods of the nations.
The only solution of the historical problem today lies in the prophetic concept. Isaiah speaks to the exiled remnant of our time, to those in prisons and concentration camps, to those separated from husbands or wives, from children or parents, to those toiling in despair in foreign lands, to those in the hell of modern war. He speaks to every one of us in this room.
How should we respond to his words? Ironically? Dismissively? Angry at their seeming pretentiousness, at the immense gap between the proffered solution and the catastrophic reality in which we live?
Two and a half centuries ago, we opted for means to control nature and society. It was a right decision, and we have brought about something new and great in history. But we excluded ends. And now the means claim to be the ends; our tools have become our masters, and the most powerful of them have become a threat to our very existence.
A century and a half ago, we opted for freedom. It was a right decision; it created something new and great in history. But in that decision we excluded the security without which man cannot live and grow. And now the quest for securit splits the whole world with demonic power.
What is the world you are making? Wars, victories, more wars. So many tears. So little regret. And who can sit in judgement when victims’ horror turns to hate? What saved Second Isaiah from despair was his messianic vision of man’s capacity for repentance.
Only one thing stands in the way. Do you know what that is? What stands in the way of repentance is the worship of power. Why are human beings so obsequious, so ready to kill and ready to die at the call of kings and chieftains, presidents and generals? It is because we worship might, we venerate those who command might, we are convinced that it is by might that man prevails.
The most striking feature of all prophetic polemic is the distrust and denunciation of power in all its forms. You who work here know what I am talking about. The hunger for power knows no end; the appetite grows on what it feeds.”
Maple’s between-the-lines was growing ominous.
“Now as then, the sword is the pride of man; arsenals, forts, chariots and bombs lend supremacy to nations. War is the climax of human ingenuity, the object of supreme efforts; men slaughtering each other, cities blown to ruins. What is left behind? Agony and desolation. And you think very highly of yourselves, don’t you? You are wise in your own hearts and shrewd in your own sight. But into your world, drunk with power, bloated with arrogance, comes Isaiah’s word that the swords will be undone, that nations will search, not for gold, power or harlotries, but for God’s word.
It seems inconceivable, doesn’t it? But to Isaiah it was a certainty: War will be abolished. You shall not learn war any more because you shall seek other knowledge. Your hearts of stone will melt, and hearts of flesh will grow instead. Are you ready for the metamorphosis?”
Richard Feynman got up to leave.
“But wait!” the Chaplain called after him to no avail. “We have forgotten an Isaiah, the Third and last Isaiah, the strangest and most mysterious of the three. In transit from the second, he begins with gentle, female imagery:
‘Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her.
That ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations;
[A titter from the young girls in the audience. Feynman paused at the door.]
As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you, and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.’
Happy ending. Nice and tidy. The American Way. But the Bible is not born of shallowness. [Feynman completes his exit.] I skip to the end of the book and read you the comments of Third Isaiah, after all Flesh has come to worship the Lord. God schedules a little field trip:
‘They shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against Me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.’
The unending destruction of flesh. The eerie excursion of the chosen to look upon the World’s Fair, the abhorrent, endless process of corruption.
‘Through the wrath of the Lord is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire: no man shall spare his brother.
And they shall snatch on the right hand, and be hungry, and they shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied: they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm.
Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left.’ So that the Lord ‘may do his work, his strange work, and bring to pass his act, his strange act.’”
Little Paul Teller started to cry. Mici carried him out.
“Well may you cry, my young friend. It’s a grisly scandal of a text. The reality of Third Isaiah judgement is indeed grim, but it is dishonest to pretend that reality is otherwise. Where do you in this room fit in this reality?” With a wave of his arm, he indicated the entire room. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
The tension exceeded the punctured silence before the final Hallelujah. But there was no Hallelujah -- only the disembodied voice again:
‘“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
Who put darkness for light and light for darkness!’
‘The stone will cry out from the wall,
Woe to him who builds a town with blood,
And founds a city on iniquity.’
Chaplin Maple strode quickly from the silenced room. He was not seen again on site. The dance that followed had a forced and frantic quality. Gregor left early to go home to bed.