For the last couple of weeks of the Christmas season, we're going to take a look at the message of some of our Christmas carols. John Wesley strongly believed that a large part of our Christian formation came from singing our faith, and hymn singing has been a part of Methodism from the very beginning. But a lot of times we don't really pay attention to what we are singing, or the language has become too antiquated for us, or the references to obscure to understand.
Most of our Christmas carols are designed simply to tell the story of the birth of Jesus and the story itself is the message. But there are a few that delve deeper into that night so long ago, and it is to those that I want to turn for a message this week, next week, and on Christmas Eve.
The carol for this morning was written by a Unitarian minister named Edmund Sears in 1849 and was speaking to the time of political and social unrest in the period just preceding the Civil War. With a nation divided to the extent that it would soon go to war with itself, Sears wanted to point out that long ago, on a midnight clear, the angels sang of something quite different.
"It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" came into Methodist hymnals in 1878 with five stanzas.
In 1935 we cut one out, and I have had Sandy print for you the stanza that was removed. Before we go further into looking at the hymn, I want us to be familiar with this fifth stanza. So please take out that insert and let's sing the other verse that Rev. Sears wrote:
The truth of that verse is uncomfortable, and I don't wonder that they took it out. In 1966, the Methodists also took out our current verse 3...the only other verse in the hymn that speaks to our human condition. Our current hymnal, revised in 1988, restored that third verse. I wish they had brought back some form of the other one as well.
The central image in this carol is the image of bending. In the first two verses, it is made clear that the angels above are bending toward the earth. They bend down to touch their harps of gold in the first verse, and in the second verse, as they see the "sad and lowly plains" of earth, they hover over us and bend down to reach us.
But the angels are not the only ones bending. In verse three, we realize that nobody can appreciate the efforts of the angels above, because humanity on earth is also bent beneath life's crushing load. People are not looking up to see what the heavens have to offer, they are looking down at the ground, bent over with the weight of life.
This is an incredibly sad carol. If you were to paint it as a picture, you have a grand scene in the heavens...all the angel choirs singing "Glory to God, and on earth peace!" They are singing with all their might...bending down to earth, because earth is who the song is for. They are calling to the people...singing of the great good news that can bring peace to all. But in the picture, those in the dark below cannot hear. They struggle and strain along, never looking up...never noticing that the night is full of music. They are bent over carrying heavy loads. They can't hear that their salvation has come. They can't see that God is reaching toward them because they only look at the ground. Peace and joy are right there for the taking, but they keep their sad, lowly faces and march with their loads toward war.
This combination of joy and sadness is also what the Gospel lesson from this morning is about. It is the Sabbath day...a day of peace and rest...and Jews have gathered in the synagogue to learn. On this day, the rabbi teaching in the synagogue is Jesus. He is bringing, as he always does, the good news of God's love. But there is a woman there who can't really look up to see Jesus. She is bent over, and she has been that way for 18 years.
Every time I read this story I remember a dear woman in the church where I grew up named Olga Sage. Olga was a tall, thin woman, but she had some sort of degenerative disease that bent her spine. The older she got, the more it bent, until the top half of her body was basically parallel to the ground. She bent at a 90-degree angle in the middle, and yet I don't ever remember a complaining word or any unpleasant thought ever coming out of her mouth. When I read about the woman in the synagogue who was bent over, I think of Olga.
We don't know what Jesus thought when he saw her. She didn't make an expression of faith or ask for healing. He simply called her forward and declared her to be healed. She probably had trouble physically looking up to see Jesus from her bent condition, but her heart was not bent. She heard Jesus command to come forward and forward she went...and soon her body was as straight as her heart. She began to praise God.
This is a great story...a joyous story...until the synagogue ruler gets involved. He has a straight body, but his heart is bent very low. He has just witnessed the glory of God right there in his synagogue, but all he has are words of condemnation. Jesus broke the rules...he healed on the Sabbath, and the ruler actually chews out the people who are there, saying that this is not the place or the time to come for healing.
Imagine how those words must have sounded to the woman who had just stood up straight for the first time in 18 years. Just as she is rejoicing in her new health, tears of joy streaming down her face, here is the leader of the synagogue saying, "Hey, you have no business being healed on the Sabbath...you are not a good Jew...you have broken the law...it would be better if you were still bent over."
Jesus takes the man on and reminds him that even this restrictive Sabbath law makes accommodation for untying an animal to give it water on the Sabbath...and if it is proper to unbind an animal, is it not proper to set loose a daughter of Abraham?" Jesus' opponents are humiliated and the people rejoice.
From the night the angels sang "Peace on Earth" throughout Jesus' lifetime and down to the present day, the situation has not changed. The heavens are bending low....going so far as to actually come to earth and dwell among us. God shows up to teach and is condemned for doing it wrong. The angels sing that peace is available...within our reach...and we march off to war. God may be bending to earth, but we are bending further still...looking down at our feet instead of up at our salvation.
But 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! Hush the noise! Hear the angels! Look up! That is the message of this carol.
Look at the mall...people bent over with their packages, scurrying from here to there, spending money we don't have because gift-giving has become some sort of duty. We are tired, but we have to get it all done and so we bustle from store to store. Above us and around us play the Christmas carols...joy, peace, the magic of flying reindeer and the image of a man in a red suit who remembers a real Saint who gave gifts out of love. But who stops to listen? Hush the noise! Hear the angels! Look up!
The carol says this is the reality of our lives. It wasn't just on a midnight clear that God bent low and sang songs of peace on earth and the glory of God. That is the constant reality of our world. "Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats o'er all the weary world." God did not come and then vanish. God is still there, still here. The angels still sing, still bend to reach us, still call out that there can be peace.
But we are still bent low. As the angels we have heard on high sing "Gloria in excelsis deo!" we drown out their voices with our own threats. "Hey, Iraq! Just to show you how much we despise weapons of mass destruction, we'll nuke you if you use any! Haha!" We decry the use of landmines, even as we justify using them. We rattle our swords, and can't wait for the season to be over, and for the angels to shut up so we can go about making peace in our own way.
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. No, it doesn't surprise me at all that this verse was the first to go. We just want to sing about the story. Don't remind us, please, that there is anything relevant to our lives today. Let us go on believing that we would not be as blind and deaf as those of Jesus' day. We would never chide Jesus for breaking the religious rules. We would never miss a bright star and a night lit up with angels' song. We are nothing like them. We are Christians...we are different. Well, maybe, but I doubt we could prove it in court.
Can we...will we...hush the noise and hear the angels sing? The good news is that if we do, we will hear that there is hope. If we will be willing to do the hard work of love, they are telling us that with the ever-circling years will come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling...and the whole world will not only hear but will send back the song, which now only the angels are singing. But the message of the Gospel is that we can't get there on our own. Our own way of trying to make peace by waging war is not only foolish, but impossible. It is God who has the answer to peace, it is Jesus and the life he illustrated that will, in time, bring peace on earth. We can do it. But we must first stop and hush our own noise. We must allow the way of Jesus to heal us and help us stand up straight. We must look up and not at our own feet. And then, at long last, we will hear the angels sing...Glory to God in the highest, and on earth...peace.
© 2002, Anne Robertson
Return to AnneRobertson.com