Tuesday 3 January 2023 It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” is an 1849 poem and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. Sears had had a difficult time with his mental health and was horrified by the wars that were waging in Europe and between America and Mexico. These thoughts influenced his carol. In 1850, Sears’ lyrics were set to “Carol”, a tune written for the poem the same year at his request, by Richard Storrs Willis. This pairing remains the most popular in the United States, while in Commonwealth countries, the lyrics are set to “Noel”, a later adaptation by Arthur Sullivan from an English melody. You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAq29n4BGoA
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 men From heaven’s all-gracious King” – The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing.
2. 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.
3. But 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!
4. 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; – Oh, rest beside the weary road And hear the angels sing!
5. For lo! the days are hastening on By prophet bards foretold, When, with the ever circling years Shall come the age of gold; When Peace shall over all the earth, Its ancient splendours fling, And the whole world give back the song, Which now the angels sing.
St Luke 2: 8 – 14
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
Our theme today is peace – a message which resounds as we call to mind ancient skies in which angels make their proclamation. Peace – confronting and confounding the warfare and wrongdoing that has rendered our world so weary and woeful. Peace – a decree and a destiny willed for us by none other than God.
In Edmund Sears’ text, Peace is proffered as chiefly a future hope: announced but not yet fulfilled, its consummation dependent at least in part upon the questionable readiness of humanity to turn away from violence and pay heed. And undoubtedly the global and personal circumstances through which Sears was living give shape and resonance to that longing for Peace’s future to dawn.
Yet for all its familiarity and status as a beloved staple of carol-singers across the generations, there seems to be something missing from his words. He recounts something of the angelic message, but not all of it. So if we’re seeking the mandate for the message – or the “reason for the season” as the saying goes – we’ll need to look elsewhere.
Fortunately, Luke is on hand to set the scene more fully. For whereas our carol portrays the angels’ song as a kind of general broadcast, Luke suggests that their grand refrain finds a particular audience: surprisingly, just a few folk with a flock. Yet to these shepherds is entrusted not only the greeting of Peace, but more particularly the news that their Peace-bringer, their Saviour, is born “this day”.
And via Luke’s hand, the shepherds’ privilege becomes ours: for by God’s grace, this is “good news of great joy for all the people”. Which means that in truth, Peace is more than the future hope to which the carol looks. Instead, whatever the circumstances that surround us, Peace is the promise that is made present to us “this day” in the person of Jesus. He is our Prince of Peace. Glory to God!
For the song of the angels, for the joy of the shepherds, for the proclamation of peace in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly bring our thanks and praise this day and every day. Glory to God! Amen.
The Rev’d Dominic Grant, Minister, Barnet URC and St Andrew’s Chesterfield Road URC