Wednesday, December 20, 2017

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Throughout Advent and Christmas I am preaching about some of the great hymns and songs associated with this time of year. Here I want to discuss the history and theology behind one of my favorite Christmas Carols, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
The author of this hymn text is Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) a Unitarian parish minister and author. He was educated right here in Schenectady NY at Union college where he was awarded a prize for his poetry.  After graduating from Union he attend Harvard Divinity School.

He composed his famous text during a period of intense personal struggle and looming political conflict both here and abroad. It is a somewhat unusual Christmas Carol because it does not mention the actual birth of Christ! Instead, it is a meditation on the revelation of the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem.

He beautifully evokes the silence of the evening countryside of Judea as the song begins,

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.
But although he is describing events from long ago, the scene quickly shifts to a more contemporary setting. Sears wants us to hear the Angel’s song as well,

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 over its Babel sounds/The bless├Ęd angels sing.
There is a contrast between the peace and serenity of the Angels and “weary world” with its “sad and lowly plains.” And yet these heavenly messengers bend down to bring us good tidings and serenade us with the music of Heaven. Their beautiful harmony is contrasted with the “Babel” of the world, a reference to the confusion of tongues in Genesis (11:1-9). Here on earth, we are confused and divided amongst ourselves but the Angels are inviting us to share in the blessing of their harmony.

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.
Although Sears does not mention the Christ Child in this text, his silence should not be taken as unbelief. Sears’stated views on our Lord were considered unusually conservative and traditional within the Unitarian Church. He 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.”

Sears believed in the incarnation, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He wrote that only Christ could bridge, "the awful gulf between God and man." Although Christ has extended his message of salvation to all the world, Sears believed that the peace of the gospel depended on our human response and acceptance. His hymn can be read as a plea to the world to receive the good tidings of heaven.
The final verse of the hymn has sometimes been criticized as unscriptural and even pagan.

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 send back the song/ Which now the angels sing. 

Critics believe that they detect in Sear’s verse hints of the doctrine of eternal return, or the belief—from antiquity—that history is an ever recurring cycle and that in the last age we return again to a lost golden age of simplicity and peace. At the very least, it is felt that Sears shares with his generation, to much confidence in the inevitability of progress. His final verse is almost always altered in some way. Our hymnal 1982 alters it slightly, removing the “prophet-bards,”  “ever circling years,” and “age of gold.”
I happen to really like Sear’s final verse, but can understand the criticism. It seems to me that he was simply using pagan imagery (perhaps evoking Virgil) to express a deeply Christian hope. We do in fact wait for a promised time of peace, a “millennium,” when the Lion shall lie with the lamb, and the nations hammer their swords into plow shares (Isaiah 11:6). We do in fact pray and expect that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. This is, however, the work of God and not the inevitable product of history.
I rather like Edward Bickersteth’s alternative verse for his Hymnal Companion To The Book of Common Prayer (1870).

For lo! The days are hastening on,/ By prophets seen of old/ When with the ever circling years,/ Shall come the time foretold/When the new heaven and earth shall own/The prince of peace their King/ And the whole world send back the song/ Which now the angels sing.

One of my favorite versions:

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