Which Once the Angel Sang

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.

A Children’s Christmas

As in previous years, I’ve compiled a list of the latest Christmas books I’ve discovered.  This year, they’re all children’s books, but I think even older audiences will find them fun.  Happy reading, and Merry Christmas!

Christmas TapestryPatricia Polacco’s Christmas Tapestry is a touching story that highlights the wonders of God’s designs as he uses people, places, and events to bring about his will.

On Christmas EveOn Christmas Eve by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Nancy Edwards Calder is a beautiful word picture, even though it isn’t strictly speaking a poem.  Brown details a brief scene on Christmas Eve as curious children tiptoe through their house.  Her descriptions are well-chosen and breathe life into the scene, and in this book, the words enhance the story even more than the pictures.

The Christmas StoryAn unusual type of picture book, The Christmas Story by Robert Sabuda contains some amazing pop-ups accompanying paraphrased Nativity passages (see the featured image of this post for an example of one of the illustrations).

Stopping by WoodsRobert Frost’s famous winter poem comes to life with Susan Jeffers’ lovely illustrations in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  While some people might argue that pictures are superfluous because of the descriptive nature of poetry, I think artwork like Susan Jeffers’ in this picture book enhances the poem and offers a new viewpoint on how one might imagine the scenes the poem portrays.

A Northern Nativity

In A Northern Nativity by William Kurelek, 12-year-old William dreams of what it would be like if the Holy Family came here and now (in the 1930s).  Would people recognize Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and if so, would strangers welcome them or refuse to help them?  By placing the Holy Family in unexpected contexts across North America, Kurelek teaches his audience about Christ and the Bible.  He also reminds readers of the far-reaching extent of Christmas and the good news it proclaims to all people of every race in every time and place.

The Last Station

I had arrived, and amid the jungle of other passengers, I could see the station block. Everyone was rising to fetch their bags from the overhead compartments, standing in hunched groups while waiting for others to exit.

For my own part, I had nothing more than a small suitcase–a slate-blue, threadbare affair that had served me well throughout all my travels. Pulling it gently down from the overhead compartment, I rested it on the yellow seat and stood waiting.

As soon as the door opened, the passengers began heading steadily for the door. A lady holding her son by the hand brushed by me, and the boy bumped into one of the seats, dropping a scarf he had half-stuffed into his backpack.

“Ma’am! Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, picking up the scarf and holding it out. “Your boy dropped this.”

Turning, the woman’s careworn face broke into a quick smile. “Thank you!” Turning to her boy, “Burt, you need to be more careful!” They turned and hurried on.

A younger man with reddish hair and a green puffer vest chuckled at the exchange as he walked ahead of me towards the exit. “That’s good karma,” he said. “Something good will happen to you today.”

I shook my head with a grin, “Karma won’t help me now I’m afraid. But, I think you’re right about today.” The puffer-vested man shrugged, stepped off the platform, and hopped off to whatever his destination was.

I arrived at the exit, and looked out at the station. The station landing was breathtaking, a tile-work tapestry of patterns and pictures. Glossy squares made up a sky-blue ocean that spread out on the station floor. Sea monsters peeked out from below, and ships flying full sail cut through the white-tipped waves.

It was a lovely scene, but it was also time to continue. I felt that same familiar flutter I always feel upon venturing home to dear friends and family–the excitement of reunion mixed with the uncertainty and shyness of meeting familiar faces that aren’t quite the same as the time before. But it was all very exciting, so I stepped out onto the waves.

Suddenly, I heard a chorus of familiar voices yelling all sorts of different things at once. “Hurray! You made it! You’re finally here!”

Inspired by Bonhoeffer’s poem “Stations on the Road to Freedom” and biographer Eric Metaxas’s statement:

Bonhoeffer thought of death as the last station on the road to freedom.

An Unlikely Lineage

Genealogies form some of the hardest passages of the Bible to appreciate.  For a long time, I saw them as boring lists of hard-to-pronounce names that I would have to struggle through when my family took turns reading Scripture aloud.  Then, during my pastor’s sermon series on Genesis, I began to realize the meaning and value of these recitations.  Just like the rest of God’s Word, genealogies point to Christ and the Gospel.  In particular, God’s grace and providence shine forth in Jesus’ unlikely lineage as described in Matthew 1:1-17.

Many names stand out in Matthew 1, and Jesus’ genealogy is indisputably full of faithful, godly, and kingly men.  Nevertheless, it is also a list of sinners and people with surprising backgrounds.  Abraham lied out of fear (Genesis 12:10-19; Genesis 20:1-2), and his sons Isaac and Jacob showed favoritism toward their children and tried to override or control God’s plans (Genesis 30:37-43).  Judah committed incest with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and their son Perez was the ancestor of Boaz.  Boaz’s mother Rahab was a Canaanite and former prostitute, yet her faith led her to help and then join with God’s people.  Boaz’s wife Ruth was a Moabite; however, she faithfully stayed with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi and made Israel her home.  David committed adultery and murdered Uriah, yet his son by Uriah’s wife became part of the lineage of Christ.  The books of Kings and Chronicles detail the lives of Solomon and his descendants, the best of whom were imperfect and the worst of whom committed abominable deeds.

While focusing on the worst aspects of these Biblical characters’ lives paints a dark and disheartening picture of sin, I see in it hope and grace.  Christ came to save sinners just like these people.  Their stories of brokenness remind us why they and we need redemption, why Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection are necessary.  This lineage also reminds us of the mightiness of God, who chooses to use sin-broken men and women to accomplish his purposes, and who can use what is meant for evil to accomplish good (Genesis 50:20).  Studying Christ’s genealogy reminds me of 1 Corinthians 1:26-28, where Paul writes, “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:  But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise…And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.”

Christians are part of a mighty throng of people, full of faith, sin, strengths, and weaknesses, who needed their divine descendant and his redemptive work just as much as the rest of the world needs him.  Deeper comprehension of the reality and weightiness of sin is not something we should shy away from, for the more we realize the darkness of the world, the more we grow in our appreciation of what the LORD has done.  Only once we acknowledge the darkness in which we walk, will we recognize our need for the Light.  As we read of Jesus’ birth, let us not pass over his lineage and its redemptive message.  As we burn candles and light Christmas trees, may these be reminders of the Messiah who declared himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and let us also remember Zechariah’s words: “The dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79) and “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (1:68-69).

Works Cited

The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Oxford Edition: 1769; King James Bible Online, 2008. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/.

Timeless Political Satire

Just as a well made whisky does not deteriorate with age, so also good satire holds its bite over many years and decades, never losing its potency. One such modern satire that has aged well is the TV show Yes Minister. Although released originally in the 1980s, it has just as much relevance today as when it was first released.

Jim Hacker

The show follows a newly elected official named Jim Hacker, and revolves around the various situations that he must maneuver through. He must constantly try to toe the party line, win over minorities to his cause, keep his constituents happy, and simultaneously maintain some sort of moral integrity. One of the major points of the show is the expansiveness and rigidity of government bureaucracy, and this is represented in Sir Humphrey Appleby, who is permanently stationed at his post within the government and is a career civil servant through and through. Appleby is the foil to Hacker, and the two see the world through very different lenses: Appleby sees the long term picture that gives the government the most stability—an interest he has since he is unelected and relies on the bureaucracy for his job; Hacker, conversely, flutters from one event to another trying to keep everyone happy with him so that he can be reelected, gain influence, etc. Through these two opposed characters, the show writers demonstrate, among other things, that nobody in government has the good of the citizenry in mind—there are only two sides: the politician and the bureaucrat, each seeking to simultaneously both win over the populace and keep them in the dark so that their own ends will be met. The show sees very little good in government, and as a result it can be very bleak and cynical at times—Hacker is often willing to back down on principles when he sees it will cost him politically, and Appleby is more than happy to manipulate to his own ends. Never is there a ray of hope or decent integrity put on display, and while this may make for difficult watching after a while, I do not think it is without merit.

Humphrey Appleby

The show deals with a very real ideology that is present today, and (possibly unintentionally) shows the futility of it. In the United States, as in many countries around the globe, government is seen as the primary vehicle for good and change—the sword to be wielded to solve all the world’s problems. However, when government is made supreme, there is no value structure left, but only the arbitrary one put in place by a bureaucrat: people become numbers, and the purpose of all of life becomes power and meeting the “bottom line.” Yes Minister may be bleak, but it accurately portrays what men always become when they have no principle beliefs or morally absolute value structure to rest upon.

Re-watching Yes Minister never gets old, principally because it contains a kernel of truth: without a moral baseline, everyone only looks out for themselves. Satire is not always done well, but when it is, it is timeless, and Yes Minister will be watched for many years to come as a brutal commentary on government without God.