It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (Advent 9-2014)

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is the next carol in our Carol Me, Christmas (2014 Advent Devotional Series).  This one is a beautiful song of peace written during a time of great strife in the United States.  In 1849, we were seeing great westward expansion as “gold fever” was driving people to rush for their share of riches to be found in American soil.  The Industrial Revolution—a blessing and yet also a distraction away from our ancient faith to self-reliance in a new industrial material world—was consuming America.  We were in the last days of slavery before the Civil War would set the slaves free at the cost of many abolitionists’ lives.  With all these dark events drawing America to division and greed, times not unlike today, Edmund Sears would pen this hymn to peace that we’ve come to associate with Christmas because of the message given by the angels to shepherds in the field.

Luke 2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Theologically, however beautiful this hymn to peace is, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is incredibly weak in its Scriptural underpinnings.  The focus is on peace, not the Peace-giver.  The focus is on the angels, not on the message they gave of the baby who was the Christ Child and Savior.  Sears’ good news was that the angels sing of peace to a world in distress, but the real Good News is that Jesus Christ was born into the world–a world in distress because of human sin–and yet this world could be reconciled to God because of who this Savior is, fully man and fully God.

In case you might think it’s a minor point, part of the backstory of this hymn is that Edmund Sears was a Unitarian pastor and the Unitarians do not believe in the unique divinity of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.  If you read his lyrics carefully, you will note that Jesus isn’t mentioned at all.  Peace is exalted.  The Prince of Peace is not.  The “King of heaven” is the Unitarian idea of God the Father, not the orthodox Christian view of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The tune, entitled simply Carol was written by Richard Storrs Willis who was a noted composer and publisher of hymns including his arrangement of Fairest Lord Jesus.

I have included this hymn, not only because it points to the angelic message of our Savior’s birth and telling the Christmas story fully, but because it raises an important point for our faith.  No matter how beautiful is peace, no matter how desirous we are of unity as people, no matter how tired we are from the wrongs of this world, and no matter how we might seek other human ways of solving them, peace is not that simple.  We cannot forget that peace with God came at a much higher cost to release us as slaves to sin than even the Civil War cost to set American slaves free.  Peace with God cost God His Son, our Savior whose shed blood makes our peace possible by bearing the full weight of God’s wrath against sin.  Reconciliation with God is of greater worth than gold…even gold of harps, streets, or gold mined from the ground in gold fever.  And we must always check everything against the Word of God to understand its truth.

For this reason, many variations of this hymn have arisen to change the fourth verse to the much improved:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet seen of old,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold;
When the new heav’n and earth shall own The Prince of Peace their King

And the whole world send back the song Which now the angels sing.

Enjoy this version by Jana Mashonee from her album American Indian Christmas    I cannot understand a word of the Oneida language, but her voice is splendid.  I do not know if she’s singing the lyrics below or with the revision above, but the message proclaimed by the angels as it appears in the NKJ version still rings true:

Luke 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Thought for Today’s Focus:  Knowing the rest of the story, read Sears’ original lyrics in light of American culture and his Unitarian background.  Revisit the new fourth verse that states Jesus explicitly as the Prince of Peace instead of leaving Him for the hearer to read Him between the lines. 

Remember that Christmas celebrates the birth of our Prince of Peace, our King, Lord Jesus.  His birth as God’s only Son made peace with God–the only true peace–possible.

it came upon a midnight clearIt 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.


Carol Me, Christmas (2014 Advent Devotional Series) began November 30th.  By way of reminder, if you haven’t signed up yet, you can receive these devotional studies in your email throughout Advent 2014 by entering your email address on the home page in the space provided in the sidebar.  Or “Like” the SeminaryGal Facebook page to access them there.  If you like these devotionals, I’d really appreciate your letting others know so I can continue to spread the Good News far and wide.  Blessings to you, in Christ always, Barbara <><

Categories Articles and Devotionals, Devotionals | Tags: | Posted on December 8, 2014

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  1. by Kayla Beethe

    On December 12, 2014

    I enjoyed this devotional very much! Thank you!

  2. by seminarygal

    On December 12, 2014

    And you’re very welcome! It’s my joy to prepare these and to share what I, too, am learning with others. 🙂

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