It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Text: Edmund H. Sears, 1810-1876
Music: Richard Storrs Willis, 1819-1900
Tune: CAROL, Meter: CMD
What is it that makes a story interesting? What is it that captures our attention and holds us in its grip? As is so often the case, the answers to these questions are probably best understood through the eyes (or ears) of children. Children love stories. Their faces beam with smiles when story time comes. They want to hear tales of joy and success. They love happy endings. And they listen intently, practically becoming part of the stories themselves. New stories and special story tellers can be especially delightful, since they also bring the unexpected.
The coming of Christ was just such an event. It was so greatly desired, but so completely unexpected. Prophets foretold the event, but they never told exactly when it would happen. And so God’s chosen people lived from day to day and year to year. Centuries came and went. The stories of creation, the Exodus, and the reign of King David were told and retold, time after time. They were tales of joy and success. They had happy endings. Like children, the Israelites loved to hear the stories. They knew that they were part of that story–the continuation of that wonderful history. And then one night, special story tellers came. Angels appeared to shepherds near Jerusalem. The angels affirmed the old stories, and they brought the unexpected: Christ was born! No wonder they left their flocks to find the newborn child. No wonder they praised God when they found Jesus. No wonder we continue to enjoy their story to this day.
This week’s featured hymn was written by Edmund Sears. He wrote his first Christmas hymn while still a student at Harvard Divinity School. He tried to capture the images and sounds of angels singing over the hills and fields where Christ was born. Here are those words written by that seminary student:
|1. Calm on the list’ning ear of night
Come heaven’s melodious strains,
Where wild Judea stretches forth
Her silver-mantled plains;
Celestial choirs from courts above
Shed sacred glories there;
And angels, with their sparkling lyres,
Make music on the air.
|2. The answering hills of Palestine
Send back the glad reply
And greet from all their holy heights
The Dayspring from on high,
O’er the blue depths of Galilee
There comes a holier calm
And Sharon waves in solemn praise
Her silent groves of palm.
| 3. “Glory to God!” the lofty strain
The realm of ether fills;
How sweeps the song of solemn joy
O’er Judah’s sacred hills!
“Glory to God!” the sounding skies
Loud with their anthems ring;
“Peace on the earth; good will to men,”
From heaven’s eternal King.
|4. This day shall Christian tongues be mute,
And Christian hearts be cold?
O catch the anthem that from heaven
O’er Judah’s mountains rolled.
When burst upon that listening night
The high and solemn lay,
“Glory to God; on earth be peace.”
Salvation comes today.
Over a decade later, Sears revisited his Christmas hymn. In the same meter, and with the same theme of angels singing a message of peace, he penned the words that are so familiar to us today. The words help us remember the images. They help us remember the message. They help us remember that it was an event so desired, and yet so unexpected. Desire that event in your life as you read:
|1. 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.
|2. 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.
|3. 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!
|4. For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet seen of old,
when with the 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.
Listen to the wonderful story of the angels and make it your own today. It delivers a message of peace for all time–past, present, and future. May we know and share that story over all the earth, that our own voices may resound the song of the angels.