One thing I love about Christmas are the seasonal songs we get to sing along with it. From Halloween evening until December 25th at midnight my car’s hard drive is set to play nothing but Christmas songs. There’s no other time of the year like that; no one sings Valentine’s Carols, get outta here.
One of my favorites is the spiritual song “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It’s one of those songs that has a rich history that is often ignored, as well as a poignant message that is often missed.
I imagine everyone is familiar with the opening verse…
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.
It actually kind of annoys me to hear the way most music artists sing this song. They use it as an excuse to belt out high notes and make it all about them and not the lyrics. This is one song, however, that was meant to be read and contemplated more than just listened-to and wowed by the high-G or whatever.
The song wasn’t written to be a showcase for someone’s singing voice. It was written as a poem by Edmund Sears, in the aftermath of the Mex-American War and the continued tensions between North and South in the leadup to the Civil War. It’s about how sin and the ugliness of man tend to drown out the message of the Gospel.
Look at the above lyrics. That’s just the first verse but if you stop there you miss the whole story. Yes, this song is telling a story. It’s not about the birth of Jesus. I say again: This song is not about the birth of Jesus! That is to say, it’s not a song retelling the nativity account. Instead, it’s a song about how the good news of the birth (which is still good news today) is still being sounded today.
Are we listening? Does the earth hear the song the angels are singing? Are we aware peace on earth and goodwill to men is here? Look at the next verses of the song…
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 blessèd angels sing.
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.
STILL the song plays. STILL the good news is given. Even today the angels’ melody of victory sounds from Heaven to earth. Is anyone listening? The song laments “no, no one is listening anymore.”
Through “sin and strife” and “man at war with man” no one is listening. Everyone is too concerned with hatred and ugliness and vengeance to hear a message of peace and grace from God to man. Thus, the singer calls on the world to “hush and hear” the angels’ song.
That’s where we come in.
Our task as Christians is to shine a spotlight on the message of the Gospel. It’s to live the life, not conforming to the world, so that the world around us sees us, remarks how different we are, and inquires to learn more.
Instead of greed they see contentment. Instead of vengeance they see forgiveness. Instead of hate they see charity. Our actions will draw them to the Christ like moths to a flame, and little by little we can bend hearts and ears away from the noise of sin and strife and to the melodious chorus of redemption.