The Twelve Days of Christmas Carols
Christmastide Reflections on Songs of the Season
In Luke’s gospel, chapter 2, we find the account of the angels sharing the Good News with some shepherds:
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 Savior, 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 favors!
The shepherds then shared that Good News with Mary and Joseph and all whom they encountered.
The Christmas carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” seems to transport us back to that time when the good news of peace was coming as a long-awaited gift from God. This carol (written in 1849/1850) is included in our Glory to God Presbyterian Hymnal as selection 123. The editors give us a hint at how to fully appreciate its words. “The “it” of the first line of this text by a Unitarian minister does not refer to the birth of Jesus, but to “that glorious song of old,” the angelic tidings of peace on earth. The restored third stanza laments how often the noise of human strife has obscured that message.”
The editors of the United Methodist Hymnal shed further light on the carol, and how it is appropriately a treasured part of our Christmas collections: “This may be the only commonly sung Christmas carol in our hymnals that does not mention the birth of Christ! The focus is rather on the song of the angels, “Peace on the earth, good will to men,” taken from Luke 2:14.
The historical context sheds some light. Massachusetts native Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) earned a degree from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1839, serving congregations throughout Massachusetts.
Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached.
Sears, though a Unitarian, wrote in Sermons and Songs of the Christian Life (1875), “Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the Divinity of Christ.”
It is right that we should joyfully sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” each Christmas season. But always there are moments when we realize the message of peace has not yet been fully realized on earth. Then we sing “It came upon the midnight clear,” and the power of the Incarnation and the message of the gospel touch us even more deeply.”
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.
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.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we at war on earth hear not the tidings that they bring;
O, hush the noise and cease the strife to hear the angels sing!
And you, 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.
For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold,
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.
As I end this year, let me leave behind the hurts and heartaches of a less than peaceful world. And tomorrow, help me to fully embrace the Prince of Peace, and as He grows within my heart each day let peace be a reality starting with me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.