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.
To get straight to the point, I never much cared for the carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It wasn’t as boisterous as “Joy to the World” or “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” and it lacked the sweetness of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” and the fond personal memories I associate with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” In contrast, that supposedly clear midnight was just an overly peaceful-sounding tune about pretty angels warbling, and not nearly up to the caliber of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” I thought. Perhaps, when I am feeling contrary – which admittedly is quite often – I could still say the same of that first verse. But now, a bit older than when I first formed these opinions, I have grown to appreciate what the second verse says.
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.
If I manage to time this post correctly, it will appear on Tuesday, December 26th, otherwise known as the day after Christmas. It’s the start of that awkward time, that stretch of four days between Christmas itself and the day of New Year’s Eve. Of course, this is contingent on you celebrating Christmas on the day itself, which not everyone does. You may have celebrated in the days before, or your familial gathering has yet to come. Or perhaps it has come, and now you lament the end of this most wonderful time of year, and fear the return to the babel sounds of the common year. Or perhaps a Christmas will not come at all, and for you the holidays might be one of those sad and lowly plains.
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.
If that particular verse doesn’t ring any bells (Christmas half-pun intended), it’s because it may have been omitted from your hymnal, for reasons I’m not able to explain. Space, perhaps, or maybe whoever first made that decision found this verse just a little too melancholy. Two thousand years of wrong, two thousand years of war, and counting. We like to act like Christmas is the finale of the year, and we don’t always like to talk of what lies beyond, just yet.
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!
Some cursory reading on Wikipedia and another less-than-well-cited web page says that the author, a clergyman by the name of Edmund Sears, wrote this song in the twilight of 1849, following the United States’ war with Mexico and news of strife in Europe. He saw these conflicts as the result of man’s failure to heed the Christmas message. Sears would go on to live through the upcoming Civil War, and I can’t help but think, a bit cruelly, that he hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. But, perhaps he knew that, for he does not stop in the now, but looks forward to the hereafter.
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.
Of course, to state the obvious, we live in the now. And now is the day after Christmas, when, for many, the real world begins to creep back. If I could quibble with the author a little more, it might be that this “song” he speaks of, this message whose absence he lamented, does not belong exclusively to Christmas. Christmas may give us a reminder and a chance to stop, rest by the weary road, and remember the beautiful angel and his song. But then, through the rest of the year, we must send onward the song, as best we may, which once this angel sang.