Christmas Day occasionally falls on a Sunday. This year I reflect on a famous and popular Christmas carol. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we often sing these carols, year after year, but don’t consider their origins or even what they mean for our contemporary setting?
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” is an American carol, the text of which was first published in Massachusetts in 1849, written by Edmund Hamilton Sears. The tune (published a year later) to which it’s usually sung in the U.S. was also composed by an American, Richard Storrs Willis.
Like most hymns, this carol reflects the time in which it was written. The ancient story of angels singing to shepherds (Luke 2) becomes, under Sears’ pen, a voice to his contemporary setting—right at the end of the Mexican-American war and as the U.S. was deeply divided over racism and slavery.
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to all,
From heaven’s all gracious King”:
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Does anyone even believe in angels anymore? We do if we understand the history of that word, “angel.” It means messenger, both in Hebrew and in Greek. This is the song of God’s messengers sent not to kings and queens, not to presidents and congresses, not to Presbyterians and Baptists, but to a bunch of guys keeping night watch over someone’s sheep. Sears, a Unitarian minister, was moved to hear and to share that message; it was a message of peace.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
Centuries before Sears wrote this carol, the nature-loving Scottish Celts taught that a “thin place” is a space where heaven and earth come very close. The beauty of a hilltop at sunrise. The ruggedness of a boulder-strewn beach. But also where connections are made between the spiritual and the physical, even if those connections seem wild and out of sync. Christmas can be a thin place for many people, where angels are bending near—touching the earth to bring God’s message.
Sears felt his world was in need of such a thin place where the angelic message of peace could have some effect. Just ten years away from the deadliest war this country would ever fight, the cacophony of Babel was at a peak: loud voices all saying different things, with political rhetoric, extreme racism, and division threatening to sever the nation. Sears penned this next verse, which is not in most modern hymnals, to say that the ancient words of God’s messengers—the message of peace—should not be lost in the verbal escalation.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife,
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!
God’s messengers still have a word to bring. It’s not really different from the message of that ancient Christmas call to peace; it’s also as modern as can be. It was the right message on the night a poor baby was laid in some straw because the world was weary from the domination of a cruel empire. It was the right message in 1849 America because we were a few years away from a war against ourselves, a war about justice and race, about fairness and freedom. It is the right message now as we and every other country in the world still need to find a path to economic and social justice. God’s message of peace can be heard over it all, if we listen.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing.
The message of peace isn’t just for countries and the big historical picture. It is also for families and individuals. When the load is heavy, when steps are painful and slow, when the heart struggles underneath the crushing load, we stop and listen for the angel song. We stop and listen for words of peace.
For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
The age of gold. It was hoped for 2000 years ago. It was hoped for in 1849, and many still hope for it today. But it won’t come to pass—ever—until and unless we echo back the song of the messengers. Until and unless we are willing to be people who do more than hope for peace. Until and unless we are willing to be people who make peace.
Making peace, building peace, fostering peace. It’s all hard work. But it is the work we are called to do. As we walk out of worship and into a world that is anything but peaceful, let us determine to echo back the song of peace and justice by making it happen.
Peace on earth, goodwill to all?
Peace on earth.
Goodwill to you.
May it begin with us as we listen, as we join in the song, and as we write new verses with our own acts of peace, justice, and mercy.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier