Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sing Gloria!

The Rev'd. Edmund Hamilton Sears was a Unitarian pastor who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was born in the Berkshires on April 6, 1810 and during his ordained life served congregations on Cape Cod and in Central Massachusetts. He wrote “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” in 1849.

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.

Sears suffered from depression, or as it was called in the middle of the nineteenth-century, “melancholy.” At the time he wrote this hymn the world was a mess: Europe was at war with itself, and the United States was at war with Mexico. Of course that was nothing compared to the deep national divide over slavery and the Civil War that was lurking over the horizon. Sears was feeling that the world was “dark and full of sin and strife” and that as such the world was unable to hear the song of the angels. 

The way he wrote the poem makes more sense to me than the version as it appears in The Hymnal 1982, which for some inexplicable reason inverts his second and third verses. He wrote it like this: 
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.

Still thro’ 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.

And then perhaps the most poignant and pastoral stanza—one omitted in The Hymnal 1982. It is addressed to all who feel personally exhausted and worn out at this time of year—all who feel just plain tired and lost. But you get the sense that like most preachers, Sears is talking first and foremost to himself.

All 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.

Even in the midst of gloomy times, the poet is able to keep the larger vision of Christ’s second Advent in his sights. The mystery of our faith is not only that Christ has died and has risen, but that Christ will come again. Even now—even on this holy night when we celebrate our Lord’s nativity—we remember that promise.  Our hope as Christians is not limited to this night or even to the year ahead but to a larger and more cosmic vision and purpose.

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.
Some have criticized Sears’ poem as being too unscriptural. Others have criticized it for not being Christ-centered enough, pointing out that the Christ-child is not even mentioned. Fair enough. But we should note that in his personal life Sears was very intensely Christ-centered. While nineteenth-century Unitarians challenged the doctrine of the Trinity, they still saw themselves as deeply loyal to Jesus and to the Incarnation. “The word of Jesus opens the heart,” Sears told his congregations, “and touches the place of tears.”

As for scripture, the story as Luke tells it features angels from beginning to end. Literally angels are God’s messengers: they deliver a word between from heaven to earth. And so an angel comes to Elizabeth and Zechariah to announce that she will bear a son in her old age. So, too, the angel Gabriel comes in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy to Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, announcing to Mary that she is pregnant. And on this holy night the angel speaks to the shepherds, announcing the birth of the Savior and sending them to Bethlehem to see for themselves. And then there is a multitude of angels praising God and singing: “Gloria in exgelsis deo…”

Sears is claiming that we must be still enough to listen for that song, which goes on and on throughout the ages, but mostly goes unnoticed. It goes unnoticed because the drumbeat of war and strife drown out the song of peace on earth and good will to all. Hush the noise, the poet says: hush the noise ye people of strife and hear the angels sing. They sing Gloria.

Our job—perhaps the first work of Christmas—is to be still enough to hear that angelic song so that we do not lose hope, so that we trust the God who is still at work in the world and in our lives. From there we can take it one day at a time. The poem is addressed to the faithful and those who doubt - challenging us all to listen, and in so doing to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation. 

It’s far too easy to be living at this moment in human history and to feel the same kind of melancholy and even despair that Sears felt at this time of the year. It's been a tough year from Ferguson to West Africa. It’s easy to feel that we don’t quite measure up, or that the world is falling apart. It’s easy to feel discouraged and then in response to try to numb it all. 

But the word from heaven on this holy night is that a child is born, a Son is given. The good news on this holy night is that the angels sing Gloria, delivering the message of Emmanuel—God with us right smack dab in the midst of all that other stuff. The angels sing “Gloria” and then invite us to join that song. 

The Church’s mission is to keep singing Gloria because the song truly does have the power to heal and transform us and the neighborhood. The prince of peace is born; but the angels’ song calls us to be peacemakers and agents of God’s healing and reconciling love in the world. 

Until when? Until all creation joins the song. Until all creation becomes the song. Until all the world sings Gloria, giving glory to God in the highest heaven and there is peace on earth and good will to all. 

No comments:

Post a Comment