Tuesday 29th December – It Came upon the Midnight Clear
This carol by Edward Sears is a firm favourite across the denominations despite the Unitarianism of the writer. In the hymn Sears laments the world at war not hearing the message the angels brought. In the UK it is usually sung to Arthur Sullivan’s tune Noel.
St Luke 2: 13 – 14
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!’
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
(Edward Sears 1849)
You can hear this carol here
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, goodwill to men,
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 angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And we at bitter war hear not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
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!
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.
One among many of the embarrassing moments in my life was the occasion I chose to compliment the choir leader of a local Anglican church after Evensong. “How brave of the choir to sing in Latin”, I remarked. What was intended as a compliment was rapidly identified as an insult. The anthem had been sung in English! Sadly, as a hearer I had clearly not heard the words they were singing.
In this classic carol Edward Sears observes that humanity fails to hear the song of the angels. In our case, he suggests, the angels struggle to be heard due to the “noise” of “strife”. The editors of Rejoice and Sing revised it effectively: … and we, at bitter war, hear not the love-song which they bring: O hush the noise and end the strife, to hear the angels sing. This carol highlights both the message of Christmas and the challenge to hear and respond. The angels are the preachers and heralds; the “cloven skies” their pulpit. Their message – their love-song – is that the Word-made-Flesh is among us. At times that message may sound like an anthem in another language: a Word proclaimed and translated into the everyday “strife” of human encounter. One day, we are assured, peace will prevail. Until then our challenge is to hush our noise and be quiet long enough for God to get a Word in edgeways – the Word that Elijah perceived at Horeb in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12); the Word that in a backyard in Bethlehem, drowned out by the noise from the inn, Mary “pondered … in her heart” (Luke 2:19)
The angels’ “glorious song of old” may well not have been sung at midnight but it is when we seek and find “solemn stillness” that we stand a chance of hearing angels – and receiving the Presence that is Christmas.
God of cloven skies and angels’ love-song,
grant that within the noise of this season
we may find space for solemn stillness and know you in sheer silence.
Translate, for us, angelic anthems into common parlance,
that with Mary we may ponder the song
and treasure the Word made flesh in Jesus.
In his name and for his sake
may we pledge ourselves anew as heralds and makers of peace
and enable his Word to get in edgeways.