Word of the day: “Messiah” from “Wexford Carol”
Performed by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma
This word comes up in the phrase, “in Bethlehem upon that morn there was a blessed Messiah born” in this Irish carol. Like words do, the word “messiah” has accumulated a variety of connotations and relationships across several languages. In its original Hebrew,מָשִׁיחַ, transliterated as “mashiach,” the basic meaning is “anointed one,” pointing to the tradition of anointing royalty or priestly figures with oil to set them apart as the chosen ones in their office.
Over time, the Hebrews came to see a messiah as a liberator or deliverer, perhaps a political leader. They called Cyrus of Persia a messiah when he agreed to rebuild their temple. These dramatic, large-scale connotations of “messiah” stand in contrast, perhaps even in irony to the gentle setting of this carol. I find that irony telling: how often do I recognize or otherwise interpret people or circumstances in my life because of my expectations that obscure all the options there? Would the Hebrews ever have expected a French-American classical musician of Chinese descent to pair up with an American country singer and bluegrass musician on an Irish carol telling of a non-political messiah born in captivity and killed in his early 30s? Well, of course that seems unlikely. To me, the only way for the story and the attribution of “messiah” to be convincing is if it takes on personal meaning.