Advent: Day 24
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
Many of us are wrestling with a Christmas season that is different to any other we have celebrated (and not in good ways). The pandemic has forced its consequences on all of us whether we are infected or not. One of the most obvious is how we are limited in whom we see and whom we can have in our homes. For this reason, the carol, “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” maybe resonates more with us this year than any other. It explores the implications of the angels’ song to a suffering world. Here are the last two verses (4 & 5):
And you, beneath life's crushing load, For lo, the days are hast’ning on,
whose forms are bending low, by prophet bards foretold,
who toil along the climbing way when with the ever-circling years
with painful steps and slow: comes round the age of gold,
Look now! for glad and golden hours when peace shall over all the earth
come swiftly on the wing. its ancient splendors fling,
O rest beside the weary road, and all the world sends back the song
and hear the angels sing. which now the angels sing.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). The angels rejoice that with the coming of the Christ, a future of eternal peace is assured. The Hebrew word for peace, “Shalom,” has a meaning much broader than the English word. We think of peace in terms of the absence of conflict and perhaps a level of quiet and order that reduces our stress. Shalom, on the other hand, speaks much more of the presence of good, of human flourishing, of justice, fairness, health, good relationships.
The carol acknowledges that this peace has not yet arrived, but “the days are hast’ning on, | by prophet bards foretold, | when with the ever-circling years | comes round the age of gold, | when peace shall over all the earth | its ancient splendors fling, …” It emphasizes why it is so important to understand well who Jesus is and what his coming achieves. God put so much time and effort into preparing us, through the prophets, for what he was doing and would do, because ‘me getting into heaven’ (critical as that is) is only part of his great cosmic plan to re-establish “Shalom” on the earth. To limit our sense of God’s purpose to individual salvation is a very minimalistic understanding of his purpose. God intends to fix everything so that we can all live in a thriving, constructive society that ensures everyone is cared for and all that harms, saddens and diminishes is eliminated.
Perhaps this Christmas it is particularly appropriate for us to “rest beside the weary road, | and hear the angels sing.” The Magnificat (Song of Mary, Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus, Luke 1:67-79) both point to the prophetic preparation for Messiah and the benefits of his coming to all who receive him. They are songs sung by oppressed people under Roman occupation, whose daily lives are far from easy. They celebrate the things the angels are anticipating as they rejoice before the shepherds. In the reduced activity of this year’s celebration there is extra space and time to expand our view of what happened and will happen.
In His grace,
Image: Annunciation to the Shepherds by Benjamin-Gerritsz Cyup