It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
December 7, 2014
23 Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old…
Midnight. It’s an hour that I’d rather not see, since I’m usually conked out on the couch by 9 pm, but one that I’ve seen fairly often lately. I’ve also seen 2 am and 4 am pretty regularly as well. And although I grumble a bit every time I hear the cry that pulls me out of my dream state and into the exhaustion of reality, I was caught breathless a couple weeks ago as I walked past my bedroom window with a newborn in my arms. The room around us was dark, but the light outside, even at 2 am was blinding.
I glanced outside to see the snow falling like a blanket from the sky, sparkling and shimmering in the light of the streetlamp. The clouds above reflected the lights of the city so brilliantly that it almost appeared to be daytime. But I knew it wasn’t daytime for the stillness of all but the falling snow. Not a living soul moved outside and I could almost hear the quiet rustle of every snowflake falling from the heavens.
Midnight can be a holy hour, can’t it? It certainly was on the night we recall with longing this time of year…
Many churches hold Christmas Eve services at midnight to stand just a bit closer to the holy moment we sing of, the dark night of the sky illuminated by the brightest star. We will worship at 7 pm on Christmas Eve at Good Shepherd, and this year we have a sweet new element planned to include participation of the youngest among us – but whatever time we might choose to worship on Christmas Eve, whatever the liturgy, one thing is certain. Every year, we will sing.
We talked a bit about music last week. The way music, singing in particular, aligns our whole bodies, our entire brain, our spirits all with the holy in a deeper way. Something about the harmony and melody, the rests and the lyrics comfort us or challenge us, the words that are on our lips slowly sink into our minds and hearts. Music is important in the life of faith all year long, but there is something special about Christmas music. It is holy. Literally. Holy means set apart; That is probably why we love Christmas Carols so much – because they are set apart from the rest of the year, like egg nog and peppermint mochas. (Perhaps even more so because we don’t start singing Carols in worship at Halloween when egg nog goes on sale or in August when stores start selling Christmas wreathes.) We sing these sacred songs only a short time each year. The carols of Christmas are holy and set apart for they tell a certain story…
It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold…
This carol is ironic in that it is a song about a song. Listening closely, the words are not actually about the birth of Christ but about the song that the angels sang on that night, the sound of the music that floated in the air.
Harps no longer hold a position as a mainstream instrument and yet most of us have heard the soft song of a harp. A friend of mine tells of the meaning of the harp for her at a time her young daughter was very ill.. She says, “When Elliana was at Children’s hospital a woman came around playing a harp. She stood outside the door and just played. I have no idea what she played but it moved me to tears. It was like a prayer really that someone else offers for you where the brokenness of your heart but also your deepest hope is expressed. The harp was that prayer for me that day…” so maybe it was just the right instrument for the Angels to play as they sang,
Peace on the earth, good will to all, from Heaven’s all Gracious King. The World in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Peace. Peace is the candle that we lit this morning. Peace is something we hope for and strive for every day. It’s what parents of young children yearn for when their preschoolers are having a meltdown in the middle of the living room floor, and the prayer of an anxious heart fearful of the future. It is the call of God’s Spirit to center ourselves and to create space for the Holy. This time of year Peace is often portrayed by images of quiet snowfalls, Christmas trees aglow and a dinner table set with a chair for every family member. But that image of peace is incomplete. Too often we get caught up in nostalgia and forget that peace has been the cry throughout human history; a cry for more than quiet and contentment.
Peace has been the cry of men and women ravaged by war, injustice, and fear for generations. We look at the wars of our time in Afghanistan and the Congo, Israel and Palestine and Syria - the tensions in Egypt and with Iran. We read the news and we pray for justice and peace in communities like Ferguson and Cleveland and New York, but also peace and justice for black families and young people with dark skin or the wrong citizenship or the wrong social status. We consider the way of our world, with religion pushed to the margins of society, the increase in consumerism and the decrease in family time or faith time and we cry to God for peace. The peace of which the angels sing…
But a look at any point in history shows that in some ways times haven’t changed. Wars have been raging since the beginning of time, the war in the holy land is documented in scripture and while there are seasons of peace, we have yet to see a lasting peace. The angels were speaking a good news that was needed on that midnight clear just as it is needed today. Peace. But there is nothing in this song that suggests that the peace the angels sang of was some kind of magical friendly serum.
This Christmas Carol sings of peace amidst the conflict and chaos of life. It is not warm and fuzzy like some others. Other Carols sing of a sweet sleeping baby who is snuggled up with his mom, but this song, it places the song of the angels exactly where we need it, at midnight and evermore.
Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,
Cloven, by the way means split, the angels split open the skies – and opened their wings…their peaceful wings as if to give the world a hug…
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world.
This line is my favorite in this song because it makes me wonder when we have heard this heavenly music. When have we heard the music of angels in the midst of our own weariness? Where have you heard the heavenly music of peace? Was it in worship as you tasted the cup of Christ? Was it in the moment when you said goodbye to your loved one who was suffering? Was it when you were finally able to offer forgiveness? Was it in a prayer when you gave God your hurt or your worry or your anger? The song of peace doesn’t usually show up when things are going well, when you find a 20 in your pocket, have a great meal that just hits the spot and the sun is shining bright! There are other gifts on days like that, but the song of peace comes to us when life doesn’t make sense, when we are overcome with fear or anger or sadness or anxiety or despair…that is when the angels song is heard the loudest and the clearest…
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel Sounds the blessed angels sing.
You remember Babel. We read of this story in Genesis 11 – the people gathered together, all speaking one language and decided to build a tower all the way to the heavens but God said, this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. So God confused them by giving the people different languages. The sounds of Babel were sounds of confusion, sounds of failed plans, sounds of chaos and sounds of conflict. These are sounds we know very well…but over, above, maybe even within and through our Babel sounds the angels sing:
And you beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow…
This is not a pretty picture. In verses prior we have heard the words weary, sad, lowly, Babel – and this verse is the heaviest.
The writer of these lyrics was a man named Edmund Sears. He was a Unitarian Pastor who lived in the 1800’s. These words were first published in December of 1849 and the reality of the world in which Mr. Sears lived tells us something about this crushing load, the toil and the painful and slow steps of which he speaks. 1849 is most remembered for the frantic Gold Rush in California but it was also the year Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery which tells us that the tensions between the north
and the south were already high and moving toward the civil war a decade later. The industrial revolution in New England brought its own level of chaos and social upheaval. There was a lot going on but certainly there were conflicts at the time of the writing of many of the carols we sing. What makes It Came Upon a Midnight Clear different, is his hope, his hope for peace. In the moment when there was a coming war, and tension and poverty and chaos… that was the moment to listen, to look:
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.
Within these words Sears points to Jesus’ words in our scripture this morning. In our text, this baby we are waiting for is all grown up. It is the final hour, the night of the last supper and the cross is looming before him and yet he is speaking of peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
When we discuss peace and when we pray for peace, we are usually seeking the lack of something horrible. We think we will have peace when there is no more sadness or no more war or peace will come when our world is without – as Sears’ said: toil and weariness. But is peace only the lack of something negative?
If so, it is easy to consider why we fail to hear the angels’ song - because we are not there – we still have war and toil and sadness and weariness. 150 years after this song was written, 2000 years after the angels first sang at midnight, we have yet to obtain the kind of peace that comes from an absence of chaos and pain. But in Christ’s words, in our scripture, we hear about a different kind of peace.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.
What if peace is more than a lack of something negative? What if peace is possible even-especially in the face of struggle? What if peace itself is a positive; The addition of something holy into the reality of chaos all around us? That is what it sounds like Jesus is saying to his disciples on the night he told them his body would be broken and his blood poured out. In the midst of brokenness he is offering them peace. Because peace exists even when you are beneath the crushing load…peace is not static but creative, restorative, enduring, it is both bold and gentle. And it is already here. The angels sang of it 2000 years ago and while conflicts still rage in our world and burdens remain heavy the peace of Christ has come. My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you…I do not give to you as the world gives…
What if we have been looking for the wrong kind of peace? What if the peace the world lures us with: images of perfect families, plenty of time, snuggly puppies and well-behaved toddlers, each of us perfectly healthy and happy and content with everything around us…what if the reason we never seem to achieve it is that it’s false advertising? Impossible. What if we could stop working so hard for the world’s peace and allowed ourselves to hear the song the angels sing…of the peace of Christ? A peace that is sung through the burdens and crushing loads, whispering steadily through the shouts of chaos all around us and as the song reminds us: a peace that the angels continute to sing about even now over the weary, above the sad and lowly plains over the Babel sounds and beside the weary road. The angels sing of peace…peace on earth.
For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old when with their ever circling years shall come the time foretold; when PEACE shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
Today we light the candle of peace, lifting up a prayer that the peace of Christ would cover all the earth. It is a prayer that is being answered even in the midst of our struggles. A song that is being sung over the protests and tears, the loss and the fears. It is a song that reminds us in its lyrics that through the circling years shall come the time foretold in our scripture; when PEACE shall cover all the earth. And the last line calls each of us to share in that yearning and hope: that not only the angels would sing but the whole world would sing back to the angels their song: a chorus of angels and creation, men, women, white, black and brown, rich and poor, joyful and united, singing together the song of Christ’s peace.
That is our prayer. Let us sing it together….
Pastor Melanie is a preacher, mother, singer, and too-much-coffee-drinker. She is passionate about creative worship and finding God in the midst of our every-day.