Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)
"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"
In last week's Church Notes, I wrote about the life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his well-known poem-turned Christmas carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." This week, I offer the background of another well-known carol--"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", whose words were written by Edmund Hamilton Sears in 1849. Sears, a Unitarian pastor, was born in Berkshire, Massachusetts in 1810. After graduating from the Theological School of Harvard University in 1837, he became pastor of the Unitarian Society in Wayland, Mass. , and later at a congregation in Lancaster. After suffering a breakdown, he returned to Wayland, where he serve as a part-time preacher. It was during this time that Sears wrote the words to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." As with Longfellow, the words of this carol reflect the effects of his mental state and of the state of the world at that time--the Revolution in Europe and the Mexican-American War:
1 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.
2 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 o'er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.
3 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!
4 For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
Our UMC Hymnal contains the above 4 verses, as do most hymnals. But for some reason, one verse was long ago omitted:
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 we at war on earth hear not the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease the strife, and hear the angels sing.
Like an unfinished puzzle, read through the poem again and try to figure out where to put the final piece--the missing verse. I'm thinking it goes after the second verse. Here's why: verse 1 talks in the past tense about the angels appearing when Jesus was born, while verse 2 speaks in the present tense. Verse 3 is also written in the present tense, but inviting the weary traveler on the journey of life to stop and listen to the angels sing (could it be a reflection of the sad journey after Sear's breakdown?). The poem ends with reference to the future with the completion of God's New Creation, when Christ returns to earth for eternity. So, if you consider the flow of time from start to finish, it seems to me that the missing puzzle piece belongs after verse 2, which ends with reference to the sin-filled city, mentioned in the Old Testament, of Babel, and before the invitation for the weary traveler to stop and listen to the angels. Let me know where you think the missing verse belongs!
As we continue on our shared journey in Advent, may you take time to stop and sing, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" ; who knows--you may just hear the flutter of angels' wings!