Advent: Day 13
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
The carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” celebrates the angels’ message to the shepherds. Two of its five verses (third and fourth in the original – the third verse is often omitted in modern hymnals) describe our world and our personal experience with blunt honesty:
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.
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!
The first verse sets the scene, celebrating the “glorious song of old” sung by the angels: "Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven's all-gracious King." The carol mourns the state we’re in, but the final verse celebrates that the “days are hastening on” to the long-awaited hope: “When peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling.”
What has had me pondering a little is that it was written by Edmund Sears (1810 – 1876), a Unitarian pastor. The carol, “O Holy Night” discussed previously, was translated by another Unitarian minister. Why did they write carols? Unitarians reject the incarnation and deity of Christ (they think he was just a man inspired by God), the infallibility of Scripture (that it is true and authoritative in its teachings), vicarious atonement (Jesus died for our sins), and many other beliefs of orthodox Christianity. In themselves these carols do rejoice in truths relevant to Jesus’ birth. Unitarians just don’t mean what Christians do when they sing the words.
Their Seven Principles (which, they emphasize, are guides not doctrines) focus on the inherent dignity and worth of human beings, and the value living a good life that promotes peace, justice, liberty, and respect for all life. They believe Jesus taught with moral authority to show us the way (this is their sense of ‘saviour’). These ideas align with orthodox Christian belief, but with the essential core removed. For Unitarians, Jesus is just a good and wise man; God is an optional extra to human spirituality.
Sadly for them, the very centre of Christian faith, that makes the story of Christmas (and Easter) so mind-boggling and liberating, is that God the mighty creator and sustainer of all would actually do what he did. He gave up his awesome, majestic might and authority to become human so that he could die to set us free from sin and justly work towards establishing peace in the cosmos he created (that we messed up). If you take this out of the story the assurance of hope is gone. Human beings will not attain it on their own. If they are right, all that these two verses describe will be our sorry lot forever. But they are wrong. God is real and he did act and he did come to dwell amongst us and he did die and he did rise again and he will establish his kingdom and all who believe in him will live with him forever. That’s why we can sing these carols with such joy even while we acknowledge the struggles of living in this present world!
In His grace,
Art: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Angels Appearing before the Shepherds