Christmas songs #7: It came upon the midnight clear

Today we have something completely different. I hesitated whether to put this song in the list, but in the end, we’re being educational, right?

I’ve stressed how so many of the old Christmas songs are almost like little Bible lessons, full of good theology, and often their meditations on Bible themes are more mature than many of us are even trained for. This song goes in another direction entirely. This song says a lot more about 19th century Victorian liberalism than it does about the Gospel.

What you have here is a song from 1849, written by a Unitarian minister, Edmund Sears. As you read his song, you find lots of angels, a generic message of peace and love, and a lot of social commentary on the 2000 years of history since Christ’s coming. Finally in the last verse he throws all caution out the door and proclaims that a golden age of peace is coming which will finally fulfill the message of “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that the shepherds heard on that Christmas night.

I would say that the message of this song fits better with the modern American Christmas than it does with the Biblical story. Rather than a message of forgiveness and salvation and pardon for rebel sinners, Edmund Sears’ Christmas is more about reconciliation between man and man. (A perfect companion to this song would be Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I love that story, by the way.)

But if there is any message in Christmas, it is not that mankind needs to get on God’s bandwagon, it is that God is taking the initiative and telling us that war, death, poverty and cancer are not really the final realities, they are just symptoms; and that our relationship with God needs fixing first, before we start dreaming of golden ages of peace.

It still is a pretty song, isn’t it? :)

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

Lyrics (

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.

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 over 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.

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!

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 send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

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