How well do you really know this beloved Carol, and the deep consolation it promises for those ready to hear it?
Before it was a Christmas Carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was a poem, one which ties the world’s past, present, and future up into one coherent story, which is both comforting, and startling.
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.
Edmund Sears, writing in 1849, begins by reminding us of the first time that weary, wounded humanity first heard the angels’ song of peace. He takes us back through the centuries, to a day far past the scope of our own memory, to a memory preserved by each following generation.
Most of us only know the first verse of the Christmas Carols we love, but the lesser known verses are almost always even more profound. Now that he’s set the stage, we’re brought–to our surprise–right up to the present day:
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.
The angels haven’t left us. The sky, cloven in two by their initial descent, hasn’t even fused back together. Heaven is exposed to us as clearly now as it was that first Christmas. And it’s not that the angels have just been hanging around since then. No, they’re still coming. It’s an image of heaven pouring down through Earth’s atmosphere, a flood of glory that’s continued for millennia. And yet–here we are, still sad and weary, and worse than that. Sears mentions the world’s “Babel sounds.” Here we are, still fruitlessly, frantically, trying to build a tower high enough to storm the gates of heaven, not even noticing that the gates of heaven have pouring out their riches on the Earth all along.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath 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.
Why haven’t we noticed this constant streaming of Heaven onto Earth? We’ve been too loud, too angry. “The world hath suffered long,” but the warring hasn’t solved any of our problems. If we were only quieter, we’d be able to hear their love song. The contrast between our rage and the angels’ song is almost absurd. Not much has been asked of us. We’re not asked to be more heroic, more capable, or even more courageous. But if only we’d “hush the noise…!”
Finally, we leave the present, and move to the future.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
We feel like the years will circle forever, like every year a new Christmas will come. But eventually, the years will end. The gold harps of the angels were only a sign of the “Age of Gold” that will come upon us. The promised peace won’t be new. Actually, it’s “ancient,” the song says. We’ll re-gain the peace that we were initially created to have, completing the circle of the years. The angels’ song doesn’t change, but that year, finally, we will “give back the song,” returning with love the love-song which the angels have been persistently singing, for so many centuries.