All we like sheep...
Anybody who's played - or heard - Messiah knows this one.
And frankly, unless you sat there with a libretto for your first experience of Handel's masterwork, you probably started out hearing "Oh, we like sheep!" and then slowly wised up to what was actually happening. No shame, we've all been there.
It's one of the most memorable moments in the show. Have a listen if you like.
Context: we're in Part II of Messiah. Part I was great, we had shepherds and prophets and "For Unto Us A Child is Born." But now, it's a different world and we're portraying the mocking and torture of Jesus before his inevitable death. "Behold the Lamb" leads to the intimate bleakness of "He Was Despised" and the violence of "Surely He hath borne our griefs" and "And with his stripes we are healed." Frankly, our bowarms are starting to get tired from the ceaseless repetition of all the whipping motifs. No, that irony is not lost on us.
And then, like a bright beacon ahead of us, "All We Like Sheep."
It's... fun! It's catchy! It's flashy! Major key, walking bass, and heck, it has sheep in it and those suckers are fuzzy. "All we like sheep have gone astray... We have turned, every one to his own way." There are cute fizzy sixteenth note lines. The going astray lurches into unpredictably cool places. Straying from the path has never felt so good.
But that's the point, isn't it? And we're all hanging out having an amazing time when, just at the climax of this fete of willful ignorance, suddenly the music stops and lights snap on from every corner. In the center of the room, we see a broken, bleeding, body.
The text: "And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."
Handel has played us, and we fell straight into his trap.
I would be applauding his masterful savvy, but find myself too busy blinking back angry tears.
Maybe it's because we're close to the end of a decade, but "All We Like Sheep" has been hitting me hard this year. Handel demonstrates musically just how easy it is to disengage from something difficult, and man, we all do it. He offers us a shiny distraction from a scene of pain and suffering, and we sprint straight towards it, regardless of who we leave behind.
And in today's world, we're hit with such a barrage of agony across the country and the planet - and definitely across our Facebook feeds - that the urge to disengage is likely stronger than ever.
It's so easy to look away. And it's easier than ever for us to turn "every one to his own way." Can you curate an online world that supports your every whim and never challenges you? Sure can. Can you use the relative safety of text, rather than face-to-face conversation, to avoid those difficult encounters? Absolutely. (Am I perhaps doing it right now, to a certain extent? Yes! None of this is easy or simple!)
I sometimes despair, just quietly in a corner for a bit, that we're reaching a place where our worst impulses - our distractibility, our tendency to rage, our desire for comfort - are being weaponized to turn us first in on ourselves and then against each other, rather than encouraging us to reach out.
(And that's so frustrating because even these "bad" impulses can just as easily achieve positive, rather than negative, goals. Our ability to get distracted can keep us psychologically stable, and creative! Our rage can be channeled into amazing action; our desire for comfort can fuel empathy, if we let it. )
When Handel writes "We have turned every one to his own way" he dresses it in sparkling sixteenth notes - but underneath it, the singers are singing the same note again and again and again. From a musical perspective, this thing that looks so appealing at first turns out to be completely hollow inside.
First hollow and then toxic; while we move through our own little curated realities, the planet continues to heat up. The energy that we could use to come together in search of innovative solutions is lost, because we're just not able to reach each other. Not to the extent that we need to.
And that is hard, and the next generation may or may not forgive us.
One way or another, though, it's on us to be aware. To know what we're doing, and why. To know when we're being distracted; for what purpose and from what purpose. (I am actually a huge fan of getting distracted, but hey, just like drinking, you have to do it responsibly!)
And to ask ourselves; when is it the right time to turn away, and when is it the right time to turn towards each other?
To end this on a more hopeful note, I happen to believe that one of the most wonderful things that folks can do together is experience music. Playing, listening - united for a while in a common purpose, even though each one of us brings something different to it.
And Boston Baroque just happens to be playing our second Messiah tonight!
You could come and meditate on "All We Like Sheep" - or maybe find something more luminous to capture your attention. Tonight I'm going to try for "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace."
All my best,