December 24, 2019

Catechetical Christmas Carols, VII: The World in Solemn Stilllness Lay

Passage: Luke 2:15–20

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to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. —Luke 2:11


 Great teachers find creative ways to teach important and complicated truths. A Chemistry teacher I know teaches her science class by having her students cook Thanksgiving dinner which gives her an excuse to point out what heat and cold do to molecules and how chemicals determine the taste of food.

When my son was learning fractions and percentages, I helped by teaching him to calculate Derek Jeter’s batting average. “If Derek goes 2–5 on Friday night and 1–4 on Saturday and 1–3 on Sunday, what is his batting average for the weekend series against the Tigers?” You could do the same to discover Tom Brady’s quarterback rating, but not now, because you would not be happy.

And the Christian Church is one of the greatest teachers in history. The Church teaches its complicated theology with Christmas Carols. Tom Long was my professor at Princeton and then Jo’s at Emory. Dr. Long calls our hymnal the Church’s “language school,” our version of Berlitz, or Rosetta Stone.

Of the six carols we’ve looked at this season, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is the only one written by Americans. The jaunty tune was written by Richard Willis, a talented Detroit kid who joined Skull and Bones when he was a student at Yale.

The catchy text was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister who’d graduated from Harvard Divinity School and then served small parishes in the Boston area. So It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is a happy collaboration between Harvard and Yale.

The Reverend Sears was a Unitarian, and Unitarians generally don’t go in much for the divinity of Jesus and angels and virgin births and all that. The Reverend Sears, though, regularly preached the divinity of Jesus, which makes him a Trinitarian Unitarian.

It was 1849. American cities like Detroit and Boston were beginning to teem with the poor. Slavery was wrenching the nation apart; Massachusetts was headquarters for the abolitionists, of course.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is not only a catechetical Christmas carol, it’s also a pastoral carol, in more ways than one: it’s about sheep and shepherds and pastures, for one thing; and for another, it’s meant to comfort the sick at heart.

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow...

“Whose forms are bending low.” I love the double meaning of that. On Christmas Eves like 1849, or 2019, it’s hard to tell whether the faithful are bending low to worship the Christ Child, or in discouragement beneath life’s crushing load.

I wish you could see this congregation from my perspective on Christmas Eve. I’m the only one who can see every face in this room, even the choir if I turn around once in a while.

These last two Christmases, I’ve had to help three mothers bury their young children. One was 45, another was 33, and the third was 26.

A family over here is just completely riven by misunderstandings between mother and teenager.

In the back row there’s a widow who’s recently lost her husband of 42 years.

In every third pew, if statistics hold true here, in every third pew, someone is so depressed they can only endure, not enjoy, the holiday season.

So that phrase from the carol really came home to me:

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow...

But did you notice this? “It came upon the MIDNIGHT clear, that glorious song of old.... The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.” It was midnight, it was dark. Caesar’s greedy grasp clutched the known world from India to Gibraltar. Daily life was an experiment in survival training; there was never enough to eat. Most babies died; it was almost a miracle HE didn’t. “Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,” to working shepherds, the exiled, undocumented migrants on society’s far fringe.

And it worked. It’s true.

And still the heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lonely plains
They bend on hovering wing.

One Christmastime Tom Long went to visit a friend who was dying of cancer. The man’s family and the caring folks from Hospice left the two friends discreetly alone. It was late in the evening:  long, restless, tossing hours before dawn.

The two friends didn’t say much to each other, mostly just the quiet—not an awkward silence, but the stillness of old friends who knew that they were saying goodbye. Though neither friend spoke it, both knew this would be his last Christmas. It was dark outside.

Then they heard feet shuffling and voices whispering downstairs. The choir from their church had come to sing Christmas carols. You could hear them downstairs huddling, trying to decide what to sing. Indeed, what do you sing to a dying man? Then it started, softly at first. This is what they heard: “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.”       

The two friends looked at each other as the carolers ascended the stairs and entered the room, their voices growing stronger. The dying man turned his face to the wall so that the choir would not see his tears. “Amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.”

Those choristers had been singing together for a long time, some for years, every Thursday night, mastering the lyrics and tunes, the meters and meanings, of hundreds of choral expressions of faith. For years, they’d all been students in the Church’s “language school.”

They knew you can’t sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at a time like this. So they sang truthfully, but also hopefully; a lament, but also a doxology. They knew it was the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night. But they also knew that “she bore for us a Savior, when half-spent was the night.”[1]

It's been a year like any year. There are some broken hearts here, and some disconsolate spirits, and some disappointed hopes and broken dreams, but also great gladness.

A Senior at New Trier just got an email from Stanford: Congratulations, Class of 2024!

This afternoon a young man gave his beloved her Christmas present; she’s wearing it on the third finger of her left hand.

On Tuesday, someone received the offer of the job of his dreams.

A young woman just told her mother she’s in her twelfth week; the baby is due in June.

Last Friday two people reluctantly agreed to meet for a blind date; neither of them wanted to go, but six hours later they were still walking and talking on the city streets, and neither has come down to earth all week.

Someone just came back from his annual check-up at the oncologist: five years clean.

And he feels for all our sadness
And he shares in all our gladness.

It came upon a midnight clear, when the world in solemn stillness lay. The darkness is riven by starlight, and the silence breached by angel song, and the world knows once and for all that God will never abandon us.

[1]Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), pp. 33–34. I’ve made small changes, but this passage is almost word for word from Dr. Long.