UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR
by Linda Foshee
I am writing this on Thanksgiving Day. It is a workday for me, a good way to avoid overeating, but I’ll be faced with tempting foods tomorrow when many of us will gather at Our Home Church for a Thanksgiving meal. Today, however, I must deal with the fact that the newsletter deadline is fast approaching.
Television sounds drift through to me, sounds that I recognize as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The parade marks the official start of the Christmas Season but I wonder if someone forgot to tell the retailers! Even before Halloween was over, the stores were decorated for Christmas. For some reason the substituted words to a familiar carol are spinning ‘round in my head: Angels we have heard on high tell us to go out and buy! Wasn’t there a time when Christmas was less complicated?
I invite you to step back in time with me to the year 1849. Dr. Edmund Sears sits working on his Christmas Eve message, desperately searching for words to inspire his congregation. The debate over slavery, compounded by the poverty around him, has all but broken his spirit.
Sears, a Unitarian minister, has seen the poverty first-hand. He had been a force of caring in his community, reaching out each day to those Jesus had called “the least of these.” The poverty and hopelessness of the people he had touched in the slums sickened his heart and slowed his progress on the sermon. It seemed that the world cared little for these unfortunate people.
As Sears struggles, he thumbs through his Bible. The words in Luke speak to his heart: “And there were shepherds living out it the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and they were terrified.”
Considering the passage, Sears picks up his pen and jots down a five-verse poem that he titled, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” He decides to end his Christmas sermon with the poem as a way of issuing a challenge to his congregation.
Sears wanted them to celebrate Christmas, but he also wanted them to be challenged to reach out to the poor, to address the nation’s social ills, and to consider what they could do as
individuals to best reflect the spirit of Christ in their lives. Nowhere was this message more obvious than in the second verse of the poem, a verse that has been discarded and all but forgotten:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath 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!
In 1850, the poem was published in the Christian Register. It’s believed that Richard Storrs Willis, a Boston musician and composer, read the poem and decided that the lyrics would fit to a melody he had composed a few years earlier, a hymn tune titled simply “Carol”
During World War I, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was sung by American troops throughout France. Twenty-five years later, U.S. troops would take the song to the front lines of World War II.
The lasting impact of the song is probably due in part to its last verse, a stanza in which Sears begs the world to sing back to heaven the song of hope, peace, love, and joy. Although the carol has been sung millions of times since that Christmas Eve in 1849, the charge issued by the Reverend Edmund Sears is as vital today as it was more than a century ago.
For, lo! The days are hastening 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,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Have a lovely and meaningful Christmas Season!
Historical information drawn from Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins, 2001, Zondervan.