How was your Christmas season? Whether it was busy and exciting or quiet and nostalgic, I hope you had a “God moment”—a time when you knew He was real and He was really with you, no matter what. A moment that, as C. S. Lewis put it, you were “surprised by joy.”

I believe that, in His compassion and grace, God reveals Himself in ways uniquely suited to each one of us. He came to my scientific husband most clearly in the calculations and astronomy of “The Star of Bethlehem.” He comes to me best in music and poetry. Words that sing of His presence.

Imagine that.

So my special moment happened on the Sunday before Christmas as I was flipping through the TV channels, looking for something seasonal. I stumbled on a show about the composer George Frederich Handel and his writing of “Messiah.”

Now I have a long and happy history with that glorious piece of music, starting with the world-famous “Hallelujah Chorus” with which we finished our high school Christmas concert every year. When we sang more of the full oratorio in college, “Messiah” began to move me from performance into faith. The chorus, “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” filled my eyes with tears and choked me up so much I could hardly sing.

It was the first time I realized who Jesus was.

And here was the story behind “Messiah.” Music and history—my passions.  Of course I stayed to watch.

I was fascinated to learn Handel wrote his famous oratorio during the darkest period of his life, when he faced failure and bankruptcy. Moreover, his collaborator was dealing with depression and the suicide of a beloved brother. His favorite lead singer was traumatized by abuse and scandal. The themes of darkness and light, of hope and despair, of suffering, rejection and eventual triumph woven into the composition had deeply personal and emotional roots for all the artists involved.

No wonder I was so moved.

But God had another surprise.

Unsure of the “Messiah’s” reception in London, its first performance had been in Dublin, Ireland. The composer and musicians decided to donate the proceeds to a fund for the relief of people trapped in debtors’ prison.

Eighteenth-century prisons were horrible places—cold, dark, damp, filthy, crowded, full of disease and abuse of all kinds. The show depicted such a prison– stone walls, filthy straw-covered floor, ragged, dirty, people sitting in complete despair. As the chorus “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates” was sung, the iron gates suddenly swung open and the stunned inmates were ushered out, blinking, into the sunshine of the courtyard. They stepped forward, one by one, as the jailers read their names and amount of their debt, crossing each person off the list and pushing a stack of coins across the table. Overwhelmed by joy, the freed prisoners ran into the arms of their waiting families.

“Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe,” said the narrator, “because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”

It was the clearest picture of redemption I have ever seen. And of the glorious reunion at the gates of heaven when, freed and forgiven, we stagger into the arms of our waiting loved ones…to live forever.

Wow.

“And that,” whispered the Voice to my heart, “is what Christmas is about—not Santa and presents and ho-ho-ho. Not even a celebration of love and good feeling, nice as that is. I came—not just to love the world, but to redeem it.”

When the show finished with “Hallelujah” as sung in different languages and different ways by people around the world, I got a glimpse of the glorious Christmas moment yet to come “when every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 4:10)

Surprised by joy? I was flooded with it.

And my Christmas was merry, indeed.