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Holiday Message from Rita Henley Jensen

Friday, December 24, 2004

Listening to the rising chords of Handel's Messiah, Rita Henley Jensen was filled with musical and maternal bliss. But at the same time, the lyrics tugged at her, making her long for sacred music that would hail a Princess of Peace.

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Listening to the rising chords of Handel's Messiah, Rita Henley Jensen was filled with musical and maternal bliss. But at the same time, the lyrics tugged at her, making her long for sacred music that would hail a Princess of Peace.
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Rita Henley Jensen

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--On a recent cold winter's night, the chorister's crystal-clear voices--soprano, alto, tenor and baritone--rose and filled the vast space of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Sitting in the middle folding-chair section of the vast stony room, I craned my neck, stretching to see above the hundreds of other heads, to feel more deeply the beauty of Handel's masterpiece, the Messiah.

Sprawled across my lap, his belly next to mine, his head resting in the crook of my arm, one foot on the floor and another slung over my leg, my 6-year-old grandson wanted nothing more than to be taken home to bed. I whispered a plea to him: Hang on just a few more minutes. I didn't know the music by heart, but I had a sense that one of the exquisite passages was about to be sung, one that would reach into me and unleash a flood of intense emotions.

The choristers exhaled a note I recognized. I sat up straighter and hushed him again. This was it.

"For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given," washed over us. I looked up toward the vaulted ceiling, pulled my grandson tight to my chest and felt an enormous sense of gratitude for the moment of all-consuming joy, of having the experience of holding a brilliant and beautiful grandson in the magnificent cathedral during such an overpowering performance of the Messiah.

"And the government shall be on his shoulder: and his name shall be called WONDERFUL, COUNSELOR, The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

The moment was one of ultimate happiness and thankfulness. And yet, and yet, I could not help but rewrite the lyrics to myself, as the choristers continued the refrain, hearing as I did the singers' voices express a particular ecstasy during the phrase "a son is given."

I have heard no equivalent in sacred music, one that hailed the birth of a girl, not even one like my granddaughter, ensconced on her mother's lap one row away, a 3 year old who whispered during the concert that she wanted to practice her spelling words.

Around the world, girls face the threat of violence, are victims of infanticide, denied healthcare, kept out of school, forced into sexual relations and married without consent, as Joan Holmes, president of The Hunger Project, wrote last week for Women's eNews. My granddaughter will surely go to school and will not experience the worst of gender bias. Yet, at that moment in the cathedral, I remembered Holmes' words, confirmed as they are by what our journalists report each day.

Again the singers' voices rose, louder still, filled with rising exaltation.

Silently, I sang, thinking of my granddaughter on her mother's lap: "For unto us, a child is born, a girl is given: and her name shall be called WONDERFUL, COUNSELOR." Fearing sacrilege, I could go no further, not even in my imagination.

Since that night, however, a phrase, a musical phrase and a word phrase, has haunted me: "The Princess of Peace."

Could it occur in this century, which has been declared by many as the time when women will take on the leadership of the world? Would a Princess of Peace put an end to sectarian violence? Could she be alive at this moment, cradled on her grandmother's lap and surrounded by choristers filled with the joy of a girl's birth? Could she create a world in which all the children born are greeted with joy? Could life be so grand?

Since that evening at St. John's, I have been humming the phrase "Princess of Peace," and continuing singing quietly to myself, "and her name shall be called WONDERFUL, COUNSELOR."

This season, please join me in those words of hope sung to the music of penned by Handel and envision with me a world in which all children who are born are treasured.

Happy Holidays,

Rita Henley Jensen