Christmas, for many, is associated with sweet things, from clementines and egg nog to candy and chocolates—not to mention every family’s Christmas baking traditions. This sweetness, and our indulgence in it, is one of the great causes of New Year’s resolutions. But it carries over beyond the world of food, and we get sugary-sweet Christmas movies (I’m looking at you, Hallmark Channel), saccharine holiday music, and likely these days a never-ending stream of kitschy internet memes.
It’s strange to think that a holiday that originates with the narrative of God breaking into a pained, broken, and desperate world to rescue it and restore it to wholeness could generate such empty expressions of festivity. But so it is. It sometimes feels like we’ve traded the feast of the incarnation—“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”!—for a child’s fifth birthday party.
Now I like chocolate as much as the next person—I just enjoyed a delicious Lindor Hazelnut truffle at lunch time—so I should clarify that I don’t mean to sound like a crank. But you sometimes wonder whether Christmas has become disconnected from the real world with its challenges and sorrows, its tragedies small and large.
Our Christmas carols sometimes adopt this excessively sweet approach to Christmas. “Away in a Manger,” with its emphasis on the never-crying baby Jesus, comes to mind. The first verse of the well-known hymn “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” seems to walk the same line, potentially keeping the good news at a distance from the real world. Telling the story of the angels’ song of “peace on the earth,” we seem to be in a world that’s already at peace: “the world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” A peaceful sleep isn’t something that everyone in our city can bank on, let alone our world. Is the angels’ good news only good for those who already know what it is to sleep in peace?
But the second verse of the hymn reminds us that peace has not yet been achieved. Jesus’ coming is going to change things. His arrival is not our prize for being such a nice world, but the help and saving that we badly need. Each line of the second verse points to the tension between where we are and where the Lord wants to take us.
“Still through the cloven skies they come…” The verse begins with the image of a split-open sky, a recognition that something drastic was going on as the message of peace was delivered to the world. The peace itself came in just as dramatic a fashion. The coming of Christ is a momentous event: the Creator of the world enters in. Life breaks into the world where death reigns. The peace that arrived that first Christmas was costly.
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.
“Weary…sad and lowly…”: As the verse continues, we realize that the hymn writer knows a thing or two about our world after all, for aren’t weariness, sadness, and feeling low the common experiences of all of our lives? Into this weary and sad world the announcement of the coming of Jesus rings out as good news. And if we remember that the weariest of all are those who are poor, jobless, homeless, and marginalized, we will see that this verse of “Midnight Clear” chimes right along with the words of Jesus’ mother Mary during her visit with her cousin Elizabeth, as she reflected on what God was doing in her womb:
[The Lord] has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)
The “Babel sounds” that are mentioned in the last line of the verse take us back to the great story of rebellion in Genesis 11. At that time the people of the earth gathered together to try to make a name for themselves. They built a tower, attempting to throw off the burden of God in their lives. But God overcame them, confusing their languages and sending them into all corners of the world. Their rebellious hearts result, ultimately, in their warring with one another. This is the world into which Jesus came, this hymn says. And we know it’s still the world we live in. If humanity has any hope of being pieced back together, it is through Jesus.
The final verse of the hymn looks forward with great hope and expectation to the day when such reconciliation, with God and with one another, will happen. The angels’ song wasn’t meant to be background music on our radios and smartphones. It was meant to be sung back to God in joyful response. Our voices and our whole lives are meant to sing the harmony to the angels’ tune of peace on earth. The time shall come, the carol says,
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling,
and all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.
When we sing this hymn, we express a hope that is present all through both the Old and New Testaments, the hope of a day when the peace that entered the world in Christ comes to fullness, when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
It’s tempting at Christmas to look away from the pains of the world and to immerse ourselves in a few weeks of fantasy, but the real message is the truth expressed in “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”: Jesus came into the real world, with all its pain, to be the great bringer of real peace—with God and with one another—confronting and overcoming the power of darkness and leading to that glorious hope of a world made new and right by the overwhelming grace and mercy of God.
(It is worth noting that the author of this hymn, Edmund Sears, was a Unitarian minister, which means he held a deficient view of Jesus’ significance. For Unitarians, Jesus is an inspired teacher, a person uniquely used by God, but not himself God in the flesh. Sears may have seen the reference to “peace on earth” as a general call to the world rather than as a decisive moment and once-for-all achievement of a new relationship between God and humanity. But we are certainly right to take the angels’ announcement with their full biblical meaning, regardless of Sears’ own theology.)
A nice version of the hymn, but without the final verse referred to above: