The holidays let us wrap up the old year and get ready to start fresh with the new one. This is why holiday music always raises my spirits (with a few exceptions). I always find one song that particularly fits a year. In this chaotic and painful year, it’s “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
It was one of my favorite songs from my junior high and high school choirs. It has a hopeful message and a lovely melody. (I’m familiar with the US version. The UK and Commonwealth countries use a different melody.) Here’s a recent rendition of it.
And there’s the story behind the song. It was a poem written by Unitarian pastor Edmund Sears in 1849, which was also a tumultuous year. As Peter Hughes described it in an article for the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society (UUHHS).
Writing during a period of personal melancholy, and with news of revolution in Europe and the United States’ war with Mexico fresh in his mind, Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of “sin and strife,” and not hearing the Christmas message:
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.
This is the way many of us feel today. We feel powerless facing the cruelty, warfare, discord, and uncertainty we see in the world. But the song reminds us better times are possible. We must turn off the cable news and put down the smartphone to see it.
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!
If we allow ourselves to hope, we can find solutions for the problems that plague us. We can comfort those who suffer. We can take action to make the world a better place. The ending of the song reminds us that we can fulfill the hope the angels sing about.
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Talk of hope and peace seems painfully naive in times like these. But despair is too easy and offers nothing but desolation. The answer for us is the same as it was for Pastor Sears 174 years ago—hear the angels sing.